Understanding Humans – Social Psychology talk

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to chance upon a course on Social Psychology on Coursera that talked about how people think in relation to others. Apart from being interesting, insightful and a lot of fun (also a good amount of work), it also tried to provide a better way of understanding people and improving yourself based on that.

Barcamp Mumbai 12 Talk

I took a session on “Understanding Humans : How to do it good” based on the concepts I picked up from this course at Barcamp Mumbai 12 this year. For those of you who did attend, and also for those of you who did not, here’s a summary of that (unstructured and random) talk :

1. Construction of Reality :
People are the result of their enviroment, their past and their expectations. This affects the perception of their reality. What this means is that the same object, the same person and the same event is perceived by people differently. Factors that also affect this perception are :
– what we want to see (these are our expectations, that color our behaviour)
– what we expect to see (we might expect someone to be opposed to us beforehand, and that could shape our attitude towards them )
– what we are paying attention to

A classic example is a cricket match between two teams, where you and your friends are supporting opposing teams. Any incident that might happen, is view differently by you and your friends – you tend to see the fault of the opponents more than those of players of your own team.
Knowing this, you could take a step back , and as the phrase goes, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes” and get a better result for everybody.

2. Attribution Theory

A fundamental mistake that everybody tends to make is attributing behaviour to someone’s personality and disposition than leaving some room for doubt about the situation. Judging people so is biased, not to mention not useful at all. Sometimes, people behave in ways that displease you, sure, but they might not be predisposed to behaving that way and the situation might have influenced that behavior.

If you can think of instances where you have let occurrences of events make you comment about the habits / nature of a person, you have probably been making this error. You do not have to give them the benefit of doubt, but it helps to leave some room for doubt sometimes.

3. Confirmation bias

“We see what we are looking to see”. This is the most concise summarisation of this bias that most of us have. This affects not just social relationships but also professional work. When we have preconceived notions and beliefs, we will jump at the smallest and every piece of evidence that supports our expected results. In doing so, we often don’t even stop to cross examine evidence that might suggest otherwise. This can make us wrongly judge a person, and is the reason behind “cover-ups”, “burying evidence” and scientific studies which have manipulated results.

4. Self-fulfilling prophecies

These are slightly complex, and happen in part because of expectations. This is better explained with examples. Studies were conducted in which a group of students were described as being “promising and smart” to their teachers. These students were chosen at random, and there was no basis for actually marking them. Their academic results were observed a while later and it was found that they did indeed perform better than their usual and in a lot of cases better than others as well. This happened because the teachers were told of them being “special”, and they paid extra attention, gave a lot of positive reinforcements to them in particular etc. thus causing the change.

Another example is that if people believe that a particular person if opposed to them, they behave differently, which in turn causes that person to oppose them though they might not have done so in the first place.This is also how bullies are formed.

Another simple example mentioned in the Social Psychology course is interesting to understand this. Assume two neighbouring countries, A and B. Assume that A “thinks” B is arming itself for war. Country A will start moving its defenses along the borders. This movement might be interpreted by Country B as an act of aggression and thus B might start preparing itself. Country A could see this preparation as confirmation of its suspicion, and the countries might actually end up at war with each other, the basis of which was nothing to begin with.

5. Attitude Behaviour Inconsistency

What people believe and how they behave about matter pertaining to that belief are not always in sync. It is generally thought that people will behave according to their professed beliefs, but that is very often the quite opposite of what actually happens. People claim to have particular attitudes but do not behave accordingly. When this discrepancy is pointed out, they often change their professed attitude much easier than their behaviour.

Tips on getting things done

There are three “hacks” that generally could help you get what you want (I am not advocating any of these methods, just presenting )  :
1. Foot in the door : Make a small request, get it granted, that is your foot in the door. That can then improve your chances of getting a bigger, related request approved.
2. Door in the face : Making a huge unreasonable request first can improve your chances of getting a smaller, related request fulfilled. This can be thought of as “compensation” for guilt that sometimes accompanies denying somebody of something. Kids get good at this over the years ; )
3. Low-balling : This is the hidden costs method. You express a request first and get it approved without mentioning the full implications of the request, and after it has been approved, a lot of hidden costs are attached to that request. This happens often in the case of modern day marketing and sales.

I hope this helps, it definitely did help me in understanding people better : ) Cheers !


Scheming Supermarkets

How many of you walk to the nearest super-market the first thing that you think “I need to buy something” ? To how many of you does that come impulsively, like muscle memory ? Here’s a little something to make you walk an extra bit further, or keep your eyes that extra bit open.Receipt

Ever since I have been living in Amsterdam (been a while), I have been walking to the nearest supermarket, which more often than not turns out to be Albert Heijn. The parts of Amsterdam I have seen, I believe that the Albert Heijn chain was planned by walking through the city, and placing the stores strategically so that one would never have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to an Albert Heijn. Well, based on my experiences with buying from the local small grocer and buying from the supermarket, here are a few thoughts :

– There are no price tags on products (not only in this store, but any other). I understand the “saves labor if prices change” argument, but it is not in the interest of the consumer either if the price can be changed at a click, arbitrarily and by almost anyone, even. It’s easy for “mistakes” to flow through, honest or dishonest.

– Products are often ‘misplaced’. I have sometimes picked up a product, reading its price tag as say X, but paid more, because, the product was not near the correct tag, or it was a different product. I would put it down to consumers checking out products and not putting them back correctly, but it has happened more often than that for me to dismiss it. I have explicitly observed a label of product A and no sign of it anywhere, and product B in its place. At home, out of place.

– There are “mistakes” in price tags. More than once, I have paid more than the “discounted” price tag for the product. I have had that nagging feeling, ‘Hey, this is not what the price tag said’.

– Another move that makes things work in favor of super markets is that the checkout counters are placed right at the end, and you checkout after you have done all your picking. People who have placed something in their cart aren’t likely to opt not to buy the product _just because_ it is 10 cents more expensive than they thought. And they aren’t very likely to argue either on the price, seeing that the aisle from where they picked up the product is far away and there is (usually) a queue of customers behind them.

– A lot of people often don’t ask for receipts since they shop everyday at the supermarkets and never do examine the prices of what they bought. Even if they do, they don’t really have a ready comparison to check if they were charged right.

So here’s what happened :
Last week, I had some free time on my hands, and thought, ‘Let’s buy some fruit, try my hand at eating healthier’. I walked with a pack of strawberries to the checkout counter, and got charged 50 cents extra for it. I had some time on my hands, so I went through the supermarket again (after paying), checked the prices, then went to the reception, pointed out the discrepancy and had them walk with me to check it out. One of the products, it turns out, was not overcharged (it was a different product from the one that I had assumed based on the tag, the names being the same but one being wholesale and one being a retail price, the difference between 5kg and 1kg packs ). The second one, however, was indeed over-charged, and the agent spent the 30 seconds walking back with me to the desk trying to explain to me that it was a “computer mistake” and “such mistakes happen”. Well, if such mistakes happen that often, I am quite interested in knowing in whose favor they go.

I don’t know (and I didn’t bother to find out) how many stores of this chain are in Holland (or elsewhere), how many people go to them everyday, and how many of them end up paying for the products with “mistakes”. I do make a simple calculation though. I was charged 50 cent extra for a bunch of strawberries. Assuming each store sells 50 such boxes a day (they were on discount, I am sure they sell more), they earn 25 Euros a product a store a day. I know that there must be at least a 100 such stores in the country. That would comes to 2500 Euros a day per product per mistake. I know these are overly simplifying assumptions, but they are not unreasonable and I am estimating they are under-represented even with this. I don’t even want to point out how much an average household spends per year on daily household goods, and how much of a difference a mistake of even 10 cent per 10 Euro purchase could make them, its just very sad.

Wow, talk about lucky mistakes. I’d sure love to make some such.

[ Note: There is a whole study and discussion about pricing strategies to make consumers spend, but you can read it here, I don’t have much to add to the discussion there : http://www.amadorbooks.com/nocardsh.htm ]