Why Are People Superstitious?

The second inning has just ended. Relief pitcher “Turk” Wendell quickly gets off the field and goes to… brush his teeth!

Not because he thinks that it will help him prevent rotten teeth, but because he believes it will help him win baseball games.

Wendell was voted the most superstitious player of all time by “Men’s Fitness”, but he is far from being the only athlete to have some weird little ritual.

Actually, if you look at it, most people are at least a little bit superstitious. Whether it’s black cats, that lucky pencil, or looking in the eyes when toasting, almost everyone has some belief that they have to do for good luck or to prevent bad luck.

It’s an irrational belief, but people accord this act a particular significance.

Why do people do this?

One explanation that has been proposed by researchers is called the uncertainty hypothesis. This means that people become more superstitious when they encounter things outside their control.

They feel like they don’t have power over the outcome and so they try to figure a way to control at least partially what will happen.

This hypothesis was initially proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski when he studied the Trobriand Islanders in Melanesia.

He would follow them on their fishing trips and note down how they do things. Sometimes they would fish in shallow water and sometimes in deep water.

One thing that he noticed is that when the islanders would go on dangerous expeditions on the open sea, they would perform elaborate rituals. This did not happen when they fished close to land in shallow waters.

For him, these rituals showed that the fishermen tried to exercise at least some control over the conditions on the sea, which was often unpredictable and sometimes deadly. These rituals gave them a peace of mind that things would turn out all right.

You would think that these types of things just happen in primitive societies, and would die out in our modern society, but that is not the case. Superstition is going strong even now among different varieties of people.

A factor that is significant in this, is how often people rely on intuitive thinking (System 1) and emotions over rational thinking (System 2) in their daily lives. Research done by Marjaana Lindeman showed that people who relied more on the first also tended to be more superstitious.

So engaging in critical and rational thinking tends to lessen the tendency to resort to superstitious rituals.
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Click-Bait, Fake News And What’s In Store For You In 2017

A while back, I wrote an article on what it means to be a contrarian. It’s someone who goes against the current and doesn’t just blindly follow the herd.

Since that time, the internet has exploded with people professing to be contrarians, but in fact using the same type of herd-mentality tactics and arguments that the average Joe or Jane usually fall for.

How do you distinguish between a real contrarian and a wanna-be contrarian? A real contrarian is someone who is a critical and rational thinker first and foremost. He is someone who is aware of his own cognitive biases and tries to overcome them.

Instead, the fake contrarians that are popping out from left, right, up, down and whatever other hole they were previously sitting in, are not only deeply unburdened by any sense of logic, they in fact actively try to exploit the cognitive biases of others.

It all started with click-bait

The internet has come onto the scene in the past two and a half decades and brought the average human access to vast stores of knowledge than any time previously in history.

However with that knowledge also came dangers.

Humans are fallible creatures easily tricked by their own emotions and it didn’t take long for internet marketers to take advantage of it.

In the early times of the internet, this was a bit harder to do. Yeah sure, there was advertising, but it consisted largely of static banners (and later annoying pop-ups), which while effective at getting money, were still relatively harmless.

A bunch of people did fall for those penis pump ads, but seriously the people who did were ripe for the Darwin Awards.

At that time, if you clicked on a website, or if you typed in a certain term in a search engine, you would be served the same banner ad or the same exact results as everyone else.

While at uni, I remember interviewing an exec of an online advertising company (the ones creating the banner ads) for one of my school projects. At the end of the interview he mentioned what the El Dorado of online advertising would be for him: people seeing the right ad at the right time.

I had a hard time imagining how that would work. In those days, you were still largely anonymous on the internet. Cookies were starting to make an appearance, but they collected relatively little significant data on you.

However, the times changed fast. The technology that was used got more sophisticated, the algorithms got tweaked and started to incorporate more and more user data (including their surfing habits) in order to get a more personalized experience.

There are many positives with that. Instead of getting all the standard ads you didn’t care about, you got things that might be of interest to you.

Also your search results became a bit more relevant to your own context and situation.

Yet, with all this you also started to get entrapped in your own little bubble. These things promoted different cognitive biases that your brain often falls for, chief of which being confirmation bias.

It wasn’t long before internet marketers started taking advantage of this state of affairs.
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The Consolation Of Philosophy: How A Man About To Die Found Happiness

It is a time of decay. Rome, once the mighty capital of an Empire spanning three continents, is a rotting, crumbling shadow of its former self.

The old institutions of the city, like the formerly powerful Senate, are still there, but entering the last few decades of their existence.

The ruler of Rome is no longer a Roman, but instead a barbarian King named Theodoric.

Theodoric was the King of the Ostrogoths, a Germanic tribe which had been previously settled in Pannonia on the banks of the Danube River. Always in search of land, they had then moved downriver into the Balkans.

From their settlements deep in Lower Moesia, the Ostrogoths had been pillaging the Eastern Roman Empire, even threatening the capital of Constantinople itself.

In order to protect his lands, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno urged Theodoric to instead turn his wrath towards Italy.

There the ruler was Odoacer, the Germanic chieftain and King who had overthrown the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. Thus he had ended the Empire in the West for all eternity.

Theodoric sent all his forces into battle and defeated Odoacer, founding an Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Rome became just another city in his kingdom.

It is 523 AD, and a man is sitting in a darkly-lit cell, awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. He was falsely accused and brought down by dishonest men who coveted his position.

The man, in his mid-40s, takes up a pen and starts writing. One question bothers him: How is it that in a supposedly just world, good men suffer bad things, while evil men often triumph?

Boethius, or in his full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, was born into an ancient Roman noble family. Among his ancestors he could count Roman emperors, consuls and senators. He was a senator himself, who rose to become a consul, and later a high-ranking official in the court of Theodoric.

Boethius had jumped to the aid of a friend who was falsely accused of treason against Theodoric and for that had been in turn accused of treason himself. His enemies brought out false witnesses against him and he was thrown in jail.

Being a man of learning, Boethius used the time during which he was locked up for productive purposes. As a scholar of ancient philosophy, he used his knowledge to draft a manuscript which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would become one of the most influential works of Late Antiquity. It is called “The Consolation of Philosophy”.

It was a dark time in the man’s life, knowing that his days were numbered and he was about to die. This was made even more difficult by the fact that this situation was not of his doing. He had tried to be a good and honest man, but shady and dishonest men brought him down.

An honest man was about to be executed based on false accusations, while crooked men were enjoying riches and privilege. This state of affairs caused him to lose sleep. How could this be in a world supposedly ruled by a just God?

This is the question that many people have asked themselves throughout history and continue asking themselves now. Why do good people get punished and bad people rewarded?
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What IKEA Can Teach You About Making Money

In an interview for “Popular Science” magazine, Nick Offerman, the guy who plays Ron Swanson on the series “Parks and Recreation”, talked about his love for building things with his own hands.

He is a guy who has enough money to buy whatever he wants, but he still keeps a small woodworking studio on the side and using traditional techniques (they won’t even use a cutter jig to cut their dovetail joints!), builds all kinds of stuff out of wood.

To quote Offerman:

Keeping whatever calluses I can on my hands is an important part of my personality.

If you think about it, you are probably not that different yourself and neither are the people you know. You (or many of your friends) still probably keep that crude “bird” you cut out of wood in 6th grade during your “I want to be an expert craftsman” phase or that model airplane you spent months building, almost giving up at certain points, but always returning again to glue one more piece.

I remember how proud I was when I finished a crappy Tic Tac Toe game in my QBasic class back in high school. It only had some basic functionalities, shitty graphics, and wasn’t very exciting, but the important thing was that I had programmed it myself and it worked!

It’s a psychological effect. People feel much more proud of something that they had built themselves, than of something that they bought off the shelf. There is a sense of accomplishment that fuels self-esteem.

The Ikea Effect

IKEA is a billion-dollar furniture company that has stores around the world. It sells furniture that you have to assemble yourself, and that is the secret of its success.

A study that came out in 2011, examined what it calls the “IKEA effect”.

The psychologists behind this study had people assemble IKEA boxes, fold origami and build Lego sets. What they found out was that at the end, after successfully finishing their products, these same people valued them as highly or even more so than the same products created by experts.

Basically, people had a preference for building things with their own hands, over getting everything done for them. And this is exactly the business model that IKEA has employed right from the beginning.

The psychology behind this is related to a cognitive bias called the endowment effect. Things that you own (and things that you create yourself) have a much bigger emotional value for you than ones you don’t:

“In one experiment a social psychologist found that people were more reluctant to give up a lottery ticket they had chosen themselves, than one selected at random for them. They wanted four times as much money for selling the chosen ones compared to what they wanted for the randomly selected ticket. But in random drawings it doesn’t make any difference if we choose a ticket or are assigned one. The probability of winning is the same. The lesson is, if you want to sell lottery tickets, let people choose their own numbers instead of randomly drawing them.” Peter Bevelin “Seeking Wisdom”

This is also why people often get attached to their houses or cars and have a sense of loss when they have to move out or give them away.

The lesson here is if you involve others in the making of a final product, whether that product is a project, a model airplane, or a piece of furniture, they will value the final product much more than if they were not involved at all.
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Bayesian Thinking: If You Want To Be A Critical Thinker You Need To Understand This Concept

It is the middle of the Cold War. Tensions are high and the United States wants to be ready to retaliate against any Soviet nuclear strike or do a first strike if needed.

In order to be able to have the capability to react fast, General Thomas S. Power initiates an operation called “Chrome Dome”, which has B-52 bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons continuously flying on a set route reaching certain points close to the Soviet border.

As part of this operation, early on the 17th of January 1966, a B-56G bomber of the United States Air Force, takes off from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. It is carrying 4 hydrogen bombs.

At 10:30 local time, over the coast of Spain, it begins a routine refuelling with an air tanker plane.

However there is a misunderstanding and as the procedure is about to begin, the tanker plane collides with the fuselage of the bomber, causing the bomber’s left wing to snap off. A huge explosion destroys the air tanker and severely damages the bomber.

All people aboard the air tanker, as well as some aboard the bomber die instantly. The rest of the crew of the bomber manage to parachute to safety.

The wreckage falls to the ground near a small village on the coast called Palomares. The nuclear bombs land nearby as well.

Three of the bombs are recovered relatively quickly (two are partially damaged however and cause nuclear leaks on the ground), but the fourth is nowhere to be found.

The guys searching for the bomb look at the evidence and decide that it had probably been blown over the sea by the wind and so is probably lying somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

They are facing a dilemma. If damaged, the bomb could cause great harm. If undamaged, it could fall into enemy hands. Cost what it may cost, it needs to be found.

What to do?

Put yourself in their shoes. There are some things that you do know.

A tail plate of the parachute was recovered, leading to the high probability that the bomb’s parachute probably deployed.

You have a probable eye witness account. A local fisherman says he saw the bomb enter the water. He points out the location where he saw it.

You also have a detailed map of the seabed in that area.

Enter John P. Craven.
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What Is Your Brain? Your Monkey And Human Brains Explained

The brain is the command center of your body. Thousands of signals from the outside are reaching it every second, and based on these signals it determines a course of action and issues commands which are then carried out by other parts of the body.

Much of this happens on the subconscious level, but the brain also carries out activities of which you are conscious. This means that you have a choice and need to make a decision on what to do next.

What separates the mammals from other types of animals such as reptiles, amphabians or fish, is the fact that they have an enlarged part of the brain called the cerebrum.

Your Monkey Brain

One group of mammals has a cerebrum that is much larger than the other groups. These are the primates, a group that includes monkeys, apes such as our close cousins the chimpanzees, but also humans.

This allows them to do much more than just work based on instinct. If you have ever watched a documentary on wolves, then you have seen that they can make pack strategies, for example when hunting.

Monkeys are even more sophisticated than that. They have most of the basic wiring that humans have. Monkeys have shown the ability to come up with complex strategies and also to make rational choices.

Smart Chimp: “I am completely ignoring your BS!

Cerebrum

The cerebrum is located at the top of the head and is the biggest part of your (or a monkey’s) brain. It is separated into two hemispheres, a right and a left one.

The right hemisphere is said to be tied more to creativity, while the left hemisphere is more tied to logic. Also in an interesting twist, the right hemisphere controls the left side of your body and the left hemisphere the right side.

The two hemispheres are tied together by a bundle of neural fibers called the corpus callosum. It facilitates communication between the two sides of the brain.

The top of the cerebrum is covered by what is called the cerebral cortex. This is a thin layer of grey-matter, which is densely packed with neurons. Much of the thinking that your brain does happens here.

What helps the cortex to pack so much thinking power is the fact that it is made up of many ridges. These ridges divide up the cortex into many parts and each one is responsible for different functions within the brain.

The cerebrum itself is divided into four lobes: the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe. This is where the action takes place.

Frontal lobe

If you see a bunch of lights flying fast at night, you might interpret them as being UFOs coming to Earth from another solar system. The activity you just performed is called reasoning.

You get some sort of an input from the outside and your brain tries to make sense of it based on some internal rules that it has.

Whether it is whack or logical, this type of action takes place in the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is the seat of weird conspiracy theories, but also of critical thinking.

Take the classical example of deductive reasoning:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore Socrates is mortal.

You arrived at a conclusion based on logic.

In the frontal lobe, you can come up with ground-breaking theories of quantum physics, but also theories of a Grey and Reptilian alien-conglomerate controlling all the politicians of this planet. The mental steps that take you from a basic assumption to a solution happen here.

Parietal lobe

At the moment what you are doing is reading. Your eyes are scanning the screen, looking at the letters, combining them into words and sentences and giving meaning to them. This ability is thanks to the processes happening in the parietal lobe.

This lobe processes visual information and the act of reading is basically looking at symbols in front of you, taking them in, creating patterns between them and based on these patterns interpreting what it sees in front of its eyes.

Basically, these patterns (words being strings of symbols called letters) create thoughts in your brain which then helps you process information.

It works in a similar way with interpreting mathematical symbols and helping you count. This lobe is also involved in basic arithmetic and calculations. On a more abstract level, drawing is also governed by the parietal lobe.

It also lets you perceive depth. What happens is that the lobe helps your brain build a 3-D plane of the outside world and so helps you understand all the spacing around you. This is very important if you want to orient yourself and also manipulate objects.

Processing visual signals and interpreting them as meaning is just one of the things the parietal lobe does. It also interprets other senses and lets you understand what is happening in the world around you.

For example, through your sense of touch, you can feel that it is cold outside. This type of knowledge about the outside world happens in the parietal lobe.

The parietal lobe is involved in the processing of different sensory information from the outside, things like touch and pain, temperature, as well the intensity of each.
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What Is Your Brain?

Four thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt, if you were of higher status and died, you would have ended up getting mummified. The Ancient Egyptians believed that if your body was preserved after death in this world, then a comfortable life in the afterlife would be assured for your soul.

There was a special process that was applied when mummifying a body. The body was embalmed in chemicals and then wrapped up in several layers of cloth. However before the wrapping, the internal organs were taken out and put in jars.

The stomach, the liver, the lungs, and the intestines were all removed and placed in canopic jars made of either wood, stone or porcelain and sometimes topped with the head of a god. The heart stayed in, because the Egyptians believed that it would be weighted (and thereby judged) against the feather of the goddess of truth, morality and justice, Maat.

To remove the brain, a long, sharp object was first put through the nostril. It would break through into the brain and then liquefy it. The liquefied brain would then ooze out through the nostril. What would they do with it?

Once it came out, they would collect it and… throw it away! The Ancient Egyptians did this because they believed that it was of no importance for the human being. For them, it was the heart that was the center of all action.

For the Ancients, the brain just seemed to be some sort of a squishy substance with no real purpose, apart from filling up the head.
egyptbrain1
That view began to change when Galen (remember the former physician of the gladiators?), one of the most well-known doctors of Antiquity, did a demonstration where he silenced a squealing pig by isolating a nerve that tied the larynx to the brain. In this way he proved that the brain was the organ controlling the actions of living things.

Galen was not the first ancient to speculate on the nature of the brain and its role in the body (for example Hippocrates did too), but he was the first one that we know of that traced out the different nerves and muscles and connected them to the brain, and also who gave practical proofs (such as the pig experiment) of how this works.

However, among many people this view still didn’t catch on and most still kept on considering the heart as the primary seat of human actions until the Renaissance proved once and for all the central role of the brain in the body.

The role of the brain

The brain is the primary organ in the nervous system and controls the behavior of living beings. It is the most complex organ in the body. The basic structure of the human brain bears many similarities to that of other animals, but there are also some important differences. These differences are what give humans the power to reason.

There are numerous basic roles that the brain performs in the body:

  • handles all your physical movement (balance, walking, standing)
  • regulates internal processes (such as breathing, body temperature)
  • controls your actions (whether through instinct or reason)

This happens when signals from the outside (collected through sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) are passed into the brain, which then interprets them and acts based on this interpretation. Most of this happens subconsciously.

For example this is how the signals that are captured by your hearing are transported to and then interpreted by the brain:

hearing_mechanics_cropped

How does the brain perform its functions?
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How To Convince Your Boss To Do Whatever You Want

One of the most important skills that you should have in order to be successful is the skill of persuasion. This is especially important when trying to influence the people who hold the power and make the decisions, either your boss, the CEO of a company you are trying to pitch your business to, or even someone in your social circle you are trying to convince to do something.

I ran across an interesting article in Harvard Business Review about the different decision-making styles of leaders and how you should tailor your message towards each one.

The argument was that people focus too much on the message itself and not on how it is delivered. This is the wrong approach and probably the reason why you fail in persuading the people you want to persuade. The most important thing is how you craft the message.

All too often, people make the mistake of focusing too much on the content of their argument and not enough on how they deliver that message. Indeed, far too many decisions go the wrong way because information is presented ineffectively.

According to the research carried out by the authors of the article, different leaders have different decision-making styles. These should not be confused with their personalities (although a certain personality type might influence the way that person makes decisions):

Our research should not be confused with standard personality tests and indicators like Myers-Briggs. Our framework is simply a categorization of how people tend to make decisions. Of course, people do not always make decisions in the same way; much depends on the situation they’re in. But our research has shown that when it comes to making tough, high-stakes choices that involve many complex considerations and serious consequences, people tend to resort to a single, dominant style. Call it a default mode of decision making.

The different decision-makers can be broken down into 5 distinct categories:

1) charismatics – Richard Branson
2) thinkers – Bill Gates
3) skeptics – Larry Ellison
4) followers – Peter Coors
5) controllers – Ross Perot

Charismatics can be initially exuberant about a new idea or proposal but will yield a final decision based on a balanced set of information. Thinkers can exhibit contradictory points of view within a single meeting and need to cautiously work through all the options before coming to a decision. Skeptics remain highly suspicious of data that don’t fit with their worldview and make decisions based on their gut feelings. Followers make decisions based on how other trusted executives, or they themselves, have made similar decisions in the past. And controllers focus on the pure facts and analytics of a decision because of their own fears and uncertainties.

Each of these different types of decision-makers needs a message structured in a way that suits their style and that they can digest in their own way.
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This Checklist Will Help You Avoid Cognitive Biases And Make Better Decisions

If you have studied economics, then you probably came across the core assumption that people are rational actors who make decisions that are in their best interest and after a careful analysis. This assumption always bothered me, since in my experience that’s not how people behaved in real life.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had these doubts. Later I came across an economics theory called behavioral economics. Unlike classical economics which works with the rational actor model, behavioral economics assumes that people are not rational actors and instead fall under the sway of what they call cognitive biases.

One of the fathers of behavioral economics is a psychologist by the name of Daniel Kahneman, who even won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work. Together with Amos Tversky, they started studying how people reason and why they often tend to make mistakes in their thinking.

They came to the conclusion that there are two basic ways that your brain goes about making thoughts and coming to decisions: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is quick, heavily dependent on emotions and the subconscious, while System 2 is slow, logical and conscious. System 1 is the one that humans use most of the time and is basically akin to instinct. It evolved millions of years ago in order for your ancestors to be able to make quick decisions in life and death situations.

Luckily, in today’s world, you very rarely face these life and death situations, however you still tend to rely on System 1 thinking even in cases where a more rational approach would make more sense. A lot of times, you don’t even know it.

This often results in you making sub-optimal decisions, which can be a huge problem in many areas of life, including business. One article in McKinsey Quarterly cites the results of a study which confirm this:

Our candid conversations with senior executives behind closed doors reveal a similar unease with the quality of decision making and confirm the significant body of research indicating that cognitive biases affect the most important strategic decisions made by the smartest managers in the best companies. Mergers routinely fail to deliver the expected synergies. Strategic plans often ignore competitive responses. And large investment projects are over budget and over time—over and over again.

How should you minimize these types of failures? If you want to make a better decision, it often makes sense to take a step back and engage System 2.

How do you do this? Together with Dan Lovallo (one of the co-authors of the above cited McKinsey article), Daniel Kahneman came up with a 12-point checklist that you can use before you make any significant business decision.
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