Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
“Nothing will ever be attempted
if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
— Samuel Johnson
In the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein they coin the terms ‘Choice Architecture’ and ‘Choice Architect’. For them, if you have an ability to influence the choices other people make, you are a choice architect.
Considering the number of interactions we have everyday, it would be quite easy to argue that we are all Choice Architects at some point. But this also makes the inverse true; we are also wandering around someone else’s Choice Architecture.
Let’s take a look at a few of the principles of good choice architecture, so we can get a better idea of when someone is trying to nudge us.
This information can then be used/weighed when making decisions.
Thaler and Sunstein start with a discussion on “defaults” that are commonly offered to us:
For reasons we have discussed, many people will take whatever option requires the least effort, or the path of least resistance. Recall the discussion of inertia, status quo bias, and the ‘yeah, whatever’ heuristic. All these forces imply that if, for a given choice, there is a default option — an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing — then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them. And as we have also stressed, these behavioral tendencies toward doing nothing will be reinforced if the default option comes with some implicit or explicit suggestion that it represents the normal or even the recommended course of action.
When making decisions people will often take the option that requires the least effort or the path of least resistance. This makes sense: It’s not just a matter of laziness, we also only have so many hours in a day. Unless you feel particularly strongly about it, if putting little to no effort towards something leads you forward (or at least doesn’t noticeably kick you backwards) this is what you are likely to do. Loss aversion plays a role as well. If we feel like the consequences of making a poor choice are high, we will simply decide to do nothing.
Inertia is another reason: If the ship is currently sailing forward, it can often take a lot of time and effort just to slightly change course.
You have likely seen many examples of inertia at play in your work environment and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes we need that ship to just steadily move forward. The important bit is to realize when this is factoring into your decisions, or more specifically, when this knowledge is being used to nudge you into making specific choices.
Let’s think about some of your monthly recurring bills. While you might not be reading that magazine or going to the gym, you’re still paying for the ability to use that good or service. If you weren’t being auto-renewed monthly, what is the chance that you would put the effort into renewing that subscription or membership? Much lower, right? Publishers and gym owners know this, and they know you don’t want to go through the hassle of cancelling either, so they make that difficult, too. (They understand well our tendency to want to travel the path of least resistance and avoid conflict.)
This is also where they will imply that the default option is the recommended course of action. It sounds like this:
“We’re sorry to hear you no longer want the magazine Mr. Smith. You know, more than half of the fortune 500 companies have a monthly subscription to magazine X, but we understand if it’s not something you’d like to do at the moment.”
“Mr. Smith we are sorry to hear that you want to cancel your membership at GymX. We understand if you can’t make your health a priority at this point but we’d love to see you back sometime soon. We see this all the time, these days everyone is so busy. But I’m happy to say we are noticing a shift where people are starting to make time for themselves, especially in your demographic…”
(Just cancel them. You’ll feel better. We promise.)
The Structure of Complex Choices
We live in a world of reviews. Product reviews, corporate reviews, movie reviews… When was the last time you bought a phone or a car before checking the reviews? When was the last time that you hired an employee without checking out their references?
Thaler and Sunstein call this Collaborative Filtering and explain it as follows:
You use the judgements of other people who share your tastes to filter through the vast number of books or movies available in order to increase the likelihood of picking one you like. Collaborative filtering is an effort to solve a problem of choice architecture. If you know what people like you tend to like, you might well be comfortable in selecting products you don’t know, because people like you tend to like them. For many of us, collaborative filtering is making difficult choices easier.
While collaborative filtering does a great job of making difficult choices easier we have to remember that companies also know that you will use this tool and will try to manipulate it. We just have to look at the information critically, compare multiple sources and take some time to review the reviewers.
These techniques can be useful for decisions of a certain scale and complexity: when the alternatives are understood and in small enough numbers. However, once we reach a certain size we require additional tools to make the right decision.
One strategy to use is what Amos Tversky (1972) called ‘elimination by aspects.’ Someone using this strategy first decides what aspect is most important (say, commuting distance), establishes a cutoff level (say, no more than a thirty-minute commute), then eliminates all the alternatives that do not come up to this standard. The process is repeated, attribute by attribute (no more than $1,500 per month; at least two bedrooms; dogs permitted), until either a choice is made or the set is narrowed down enough to switch over to a compensatory evaluation of the ‘finalists.’”
This is a very useful tool if you have a good idea of which attributes are of most value to you.
When using these techniques, we have to be mindful of the fact that the companies trying to sell us goods have spent a lot of time and money figuring out what attributes are important to you as well.
For example, if you were to shop for an SUV you would notice that there are a specific number of variables they all seem to have in common now (engine options, towing options, seating options, storage options). They are trying to nudge you not to eliminate them from your list. This forces you to do the tertiary research or better yet, this forces you to walk into dealerships where they will try to inflate the importance of those attributes (which they do best).
They also try to call things new names as a means to differentiate themselves and get onto your list. What do you mean our competitors don’t have FLEXfuel?
Incentives are so ubiquitous in our lives that it’s very easy to overlook them. Unfortunately, this can influence us to make poor decisions.
Thaler and Sunstein believe this is tied into how salient the incentive is.
The most important modification that must be made to a standard analysis of incentives is salience. Do the choosers actually notice the incentives they face? In free markets, the answer is usually yes, but in important cases the answer is no.
Consider the example of members of an urban family deciding whether to buy a car. Suppose their choices are to take taxis and public transportation or to spend ten thousand dollars to buy a used car, which they can park on the street in front of their home. The only salient costs of owning this car will be the weekly stops at the gas station, occasional repair bills, and a yearly insurance bill. The opportunity cost of the ten thousand dollars is likely to be neglected. (In other words, once they purchase the car, they tend to forget about the ten thousand dollars and stop treating it as money that could have been spent on something else.) In contrast, every time the family uses a taxi the cost will be in their face, with the meter clicking every few blocks. So behavioral analysis of the incentives of car ownership will predict that people will underweight the opportunity costs of car ownership, and possibly other less salient aspects such as depreciation, and may overweight the very salient costs of using a taxi.
The problems here are relatable and easily solved: If the family above had written down all the numbers related to either taxi, public transportation, or car ownership, it would have been a lot more difficult for them to undervalue the salient aspects of any of their choices. (At least if the highest value attribute is cost).
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the daily nudges we face but it’s a good start and some important, translatable, themes emerge.
Inspired by a reader’s question to me, I thought I’d ask our followers on Facebook and Twitter for an answer to the question: What books would you recommend someone read to improve their general knowledge of the world.
I must say the number and quality of the responses overwhelmed me. The box Amazon just delivered reminds me that I ordered 9 books off this list.
Here is the list of what 55,000 of the smartest readers on the internet came up with, and what a list it is!
International strategist Peter Zeihan examines how the hard rules of geography are eroding the American commitment to free trade; how much of the planet is aging into a mass retirement that will enervate markets and capital supplies; and how, against all odds, it is the ever-ravenous American economy that-alone among the developed nations-is rapidly approaching energy independence. Combined, these factors are doing nothing less than overturning the global system and ushering in a new (dis)order.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
“I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun, engaging look at early human history…you’ll have a hard time putting it down.”— Bill Gates
William McNeill’s widely acclaimed one-volume history emphasizes the four Old World civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and Europe, paying particular attention to their interaction across time as well as the impact on historical scholarship in light of the most recent archaeological discoveries. The engaging and informative narrative touches on all aspects of civilization, including geography, communication, and technological and artistic developments, and provides extensive coverage of the modern era.
Here’s your chance to brush up on all those subjects you slept through in school, reacquaint yourself with all the facts you once knew (then promptly forgot), catch up on major developments in the world today, and become the Renaissance man or woman you always knew you could be!
Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the rise and fall, birth and death of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buend; a family. Inventive, amusing, magnetic, sad, and alive with unforgettable men and women — brimming with truth, compassion, and a lyrical magic that strikes the soul — this novel is a masterpiece in the art of fiction.
Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.
Neil MacGregor has blazed an unusual path to international renown. As director of the British Museum, he organized an exhibit that aimed to tell the history of humanity through the stories of one hundred objects made, used, venerated, or discarded by man. The exhibit and its accompanying BBC radio series broke broadcasting records and MacGregor’s book became a bestselling sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and a huge Christmas hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print in the United States alone.
23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism uses twenty-three short essays (a few great examples: “There Is No Such Thing as a Free Market,” “The Washing Machine Has Changed the World More than the Internet Has”) to equip readers with an understanding of how global capitalism works, and doesn’t, while offering a vision of how we can shape capitalism to humane ends, instead of becoming slaves of the market.
A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were—and still are. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book. When it was first published in 1962, it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. Fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style. In Gregory Hays’s new translation—the first in a generation—Marcus’s thoughts speak with a new immediacy: never before have they been so directly and powerfully presented.
… broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.
One of the supreme masterpieces of world literature, Crime and Punishment catapulted Dostoyevsky to the forefront of Russian writers and into the ranks of the world’s greatest novelists. Drawing upon experiences from his own prison days, the author recounts in feverish, compelling tones the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student tormented by his own nihilism, and the struggle between good and evil. Believing that he is above the law, and convinced that humanitarian ends justify vile means, he brutally murders an old woman — a pawnbroker whom he regards as “stupid, ailing, greedy…good for nothing.” Overwhelmed afterwards by feelings of guilt and terror, Raskolnikov confesses to the crime and goes to prison. There he realizes that happiness and redemption can only be achieved through suffering. Infused with forceful religious, social, and philosophical elements, the novel was an immediate success. This extraordinary, unforgettable work is reprinted here in the authoritative Constance Garnett translation.
The Prince shocked Europe on publication with its advocacy of ruthless tactics for gaining absolute power and its abandonment of conventional morality. Niccoló Machiavelli drew on his own experience of office under the turbulent Florentine republic, rejecting traditional values of political theory and recognizing the complicated, transient nature of political life. Concerned not with lofty ideal but with a regime that would last, The Prince has become the bible of realpolitik, and it still retains its power to alarm and to instruct. In this edition, Machiavelli’s tough-minded and pragmatic Italian is preserved in George Bull’s clear, unambiguous translation.
For more than two thousand years, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War has provided leaders with essential advice on battlefield tactics and management strategies. An elemental part of Chinese culture, it has also become a touchstone for the Western struggle for survival and success, whether in battle, in business, or in relationships. Now, in this crisp, accessible new translation, eminent scholar John Minford brings this seminal work to life for today’s readers. Capturing the literary quality of the work, Minford presents the core text in two formats: first, the unadorned ancient words of wisdom ascribed to Sun-tzu; then, the same text with extensive running commentary from the canon of traditional Chinese commentators. A lively, learned introduction and other valuable apparatus round out this authoritative volume.
Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish.
Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life’s work, The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker’s brilliant and impassioned answer to the “why” of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie — man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.
(Robert) Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright’s narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology’s ongoing transformation of the world.
The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create. In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel shows how we can find singular ways to create those new things.
In this pathbreaking work, now with a new introduction, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky show that, contrary to the usual image of the news media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defense of justice, in their actual practice they defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order.
[O]ne of the most talked-about climate change books of recent years, for reasons easy to understand: It tells the controversial story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.
From the U.S. military in Iraq to infrastructure development in Indonesia, from Peace Corps volunteers in Africa to jackals in Venezuela, Perkins exposes a conspiracy of corruption that has fueled instability and anti-Americanism around the globe, with consequences reflected in our daily headlines. Having raised the alarm, Perkins passionately addresses how Americans can work to create a more peaceful and stable world for future generations.
Americans have lost touch with their history, and in Lies My Teacher Told Me Professor James Loewen shows why. After surveying eighteen leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that not one does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.
The remarkable best-seller — a long-lost, 300-year-old book of wisdom on how to live successfully yet responsibly in a society governed by self-interest — as acute as Machiavelli yet as humanistic and scrupulously moral as Marcus Aurelius.
Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, The 48 Laws of Power is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control.
Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition
My most gifted book.
In addition to the basic rules of negotiation, $1000 a Minute tells readers when to apply them. The book is reorganized to tell: What to do at the start of the job search, how to “dodge” the salary issue during the job search, what to prepare before a job interview, when to enter into negotiations, and what order to ask for things. Special training is provided in how NOT to jeapordize the offer you have and still negotiate for the offer you want.
In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today.
By piecing the lives of selected individuals into a grand mosaic, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin explores the development of artistic innovation over 3,000 years. A hugely ambitious chronicle of the arts that Boorstin delivers with the scope that made his Discoverers a national bestseller.
As John Casti wrote, “Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness.” This groundbreaking work by Denmark’s leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are unaware of it, our brains sift through and discard billions of pieces of data in order to allow us to understand the world around us. In fact, most of what we call thought is actually the unconscious discarding of information. What our consciousness rejects constitutes the most valuable part of ourselves, the “Me” that the “I” draws on for most of our actions–fluent speech, riding a bicycle, anything involving expertise. No wonder that, in this age of information, so many of us feel empty and dissatisfied. As engaging as it is insightful, this important book encourages us to rely more on what our instincts and our senses tell us so that we can better appreciate the richness of human life.
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.
A contemporary classic, Please Kill Me is the definitive oral history of the most nihilistic of all pop movements. Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, the Ramones, and scores of other punk figures lend their voices to this decisive account of that explosive era. This 20th anniversary edition features new photos and an afterword by the authors.
One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city’s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.
“All stories are love stories,” begins Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson’s big-hearted and achingly funny novel. Set in Belfast during the Troubles, Eureka Street takes us into the lives and families of Chuckie Lurgan and Jake Jackson, a Protestant and a Catholic—unlikely pals and staunch allies in an uneasy time. When a new work of graffiti begins to show up throughout the city—“OTG”—the locals are stumped. The harder they try to decipher it, the more it reflects the passions and paranoias that govern and divide them. Chuckie and Jake are as mystified as everyone else. In the meantime, they try to carve out lives for themselves in the battlefield they call home. Chuckie falls in love with an American who is living in Belfast to escape the violence in her own land; the best Jake can do is to get into a hilarious and remorseless war of insults with a beautiful but spitfire Republican whose Irish name, properly pronounced, sounds to him like someone choking. The real love story in Eureka Street involves Belfast—the city’s soul and spirit, and its will to survive the worst it can do to itself.
Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham’s most brilliant characters – his fiancée Isabel whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob. Maugham himself wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates.
For several years of his turbulent life, Seneca was the guiding hand of the Roman Empire. His inspired reasoning derived mainly from the Stoic principles, which had originally been developed some centuries earlier in Athens. This selection of Seneca’s letters shows him upholding the austere ethical ideals of Stoicism—the wisdom of the self-possessed person immune to overmastering emotions and life’s setbacks—while valuing friendship and the courage of ordinary men, and criticizing the harsh treatment of slaves and the cruelties in the gladiatorial arena. The humanity and wit revealed in Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism is a moving and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.
The fascinating, untold tale of Samuel Zemurray, the self-made banana mogul who went from penniless roadside banana peddler to kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary When Samuel Zemurray arrived in America in 1891, he was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. Working his way up from a roadside fruit peddler to conquering the United Fruit Company, Zemurray became a symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures. Zemurray lived one of the great untold stories of the last hundred years. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, he built a sprawling empire of banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. From hustling on the docks of New Orleans to overthrowing Central American governments and precipitating the bloody thirty-six-year Guatemalan civil war, the Banana Man lived a monumental and sometimes dastardly life. Rich Cohen’s brilliant historical profile The Fish That Ate the Whale unveils Zemurray as a hidden power broker, driven by an indomitable will to succeed.
In a book of unprecedented scope–now available in a larger format—Iain McGilchrist presents a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and how those differences have affected society, history, and culture. McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent research in neuroscience and psychology to reveal that the difference is profound: the left hemisphere is detail oriented, while the right has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity. McGilchrist then takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists from Aeschylus to Magritte.
Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.
Ngugi describes this book as ‘a summary of some of the issues in which I have been passionately involved for the last twenty years of my practice in fiction, theatre, criticism and in teaching of literature’.
Over 6.4 billion people participate in a $36.5 trillion global economy, designed and overseen by no one. How did this marvel of self-organized complexity evolve? How is wealth created within this system? And how can wealth be increased for the benefit of individuals, businesses, and society? In The Origin of Wealth, Eric D. Beinhocker argues that modern science provides a radical perspective on these age-old questions, with far-reaching implications. According to Beinhocker, wealth creation is the product of a simple but profoundly powerful evolutionary formula: differentiate, select, and amplify. In this view, the economy is a “complex adaptive system” in which physical technologies, social technologies, and business designs continuously interact to create novel products, new ideas, and increasing wealth. Taking readers on an entertaining journey through economic history, from the Stone Age to modern economy, Beinhocker explores how “complexity economics” provides provocative insights on issues ranging from creating adaptive organizations to the evolutionary workings of stock markets to new perspectives on government policies. A landmark book that shatters conventional economic theory, The Origin of Wealth will rewire our thinking about how we came to be here—and where we are going.
The Company of Strangers shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives. This completely revised and updated edition includes a new chapter analyzing how the rise and fall of social trust explain the unsustainable boom in the global economy over the past decade and the financial crisis that succeeded it. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Paul Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, cities, and the banking system to provide the foundations of social trust that we need in our everyday lives. Even the simple acts of buying food and clothing depend on an astonishing web of interaction that spans the globe. How did humans develop the ability to trust total strangers with providing our most basic needs?
When first published, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media made history with its radical view of the effects of electronic communications upon man and life in the twentieth century. This edition of McLuhan’s best-known book both enhances its accessibility to a general audience and provides the full critical apparatus necessary for scholars. In Terrence Gordon’s own words, “McLuhan is in full flight already in the introduction, challenging us to plunge with him into what he calls ‘the creative process of knowing.'” Much to the chagrin of his contemporary critics McLuhan’s preference was for a prose style that explored rather than explained. Probes, or aphorisms, were an indispensable tool with which he sought to prompt and prod the reader into an “understanding of how media operates” and to provoke reflection. In the 1960s McLuhan s theories aroused both wrath and admiration. It is intriguing to speculate what he might have to say 40 years later on subjects to which he devoted whole chapters such as Television, The Telephone, Weapons, Housing and Money. Today few would dispute that mass media have indeed decentralized modern living and turned the world into a global village.
Lorimer’s Letters From A Self-Made Merchant To His Son is a timeless collection of Gilded Age aphorisms from a rich man – a prosperous pork-packer in Chicago to his son, Pierrepont, whom he ‘affectionately’ calls ‘Piggy.’ The writing is subtle and brilliant.
David Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo, is a brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope, far-reaching in its message — a crucial book in precarious times, which radically alters the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in that world. It’s also a book full of entertainment and wonders. In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen’s keen intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries. We trail after him as he travels the world, tracking the subject of island biogeography, which encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin and extinction of all species. Why is this island idea so important? Because islands are where species most commonly go extinct — and because, as Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of Earth’s landscapes are being chopped into island-like fragments by human activity. Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution and extinction, and in so doing come to understand the monumental diversity of our planet, and the importance of preserving its wild landscapes, animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating human characters. By the book’s end we are wiser, and more deeply concerned, but Quammen leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.
In this “artful, informative, and delightful” (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion –as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war –and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Rhone-Poulenc Prize, and the Commonwealth club of California’s Gold Medal.
Henry Kissinger offers in World Order a deep meditation on the roots of international harmony and global disorder. Drawing on his experience as one of the foremost statesmen of the modern era—advising presidents, traveling the world, observing and shaping the central foreign policy events of recent decades—Kissinger now reveals his analysis of the ultimate challenge for the twenty-first century: how to build a shared international order in a world of divergent historical perspectives, violent conflict, proliferating technology, and ideological extremism.
For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace. In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not “Who did this to us?” but rather “Where did we go wrong?”
In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions. Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Winner of the National Academy of Sciences Best Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow is destined to be a classic.
When Elizabeth Bennet first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited; he is indifferent to her good looks and lively mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the troubled relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is determined to dislike him more than ever. In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows the folly of judging by first impressions and superbly evokes the friendships,gossip and snobberies of provincial middle-class life.
In Living Within Limits, Hardin focuses on the neglected problem of overpopulation, making a forceful case for dramatically changing the way we live in and manage our world. Our world itself, he writes, is in the dilemma of the lifeboat: it can only hold a certain number of people before it sinks–not everyone can be saved. The old idea of progress and limitless growth misses the point that the earth (and each part of it) has a limited carrying capacity; sentimentality should not cloud our ability to take necessary steps to limit population. But Hardin refutes the notion that goodwill and voluntary restraints will be enough. Instead, nations where population is growing must suffer the consequences alone. Too often, he writes, we operate on the faulty principle of shared costs matched with private profits. In Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” he showed how a village common pasture suffers from overgrazing because each villager puts as many cattle on it as possible–since the costs of grazing are shared by everyone, but the profits go to the individual. The metaphor applies to global ecology, he argues, making a powerful case for closed borders and an end to immigration from poor nations to rich ones. “The production of human beings is the result of very localized human actions; corrective action must be local….Globalizing the ‘population problem’ would only ensure that it would never be solved.” Hardin does not shrink from the startling implications of his argument, as he criticizes the shipment of food to overpopulated regions and asserts that coercion in population control is inevitable. But he also proposes a free flow of information across boundaries, to allow each state to help itself.
At the root of human conflict is our fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. The illusion that we are isolated beings, unconnected to the rest of the universe, has led us to view the “outside” world with hostility, and has fueled our misuse of technology and our violent and hostile subjugation of the natural world. In The Book, philosopher Alan Watts provides us with a much-needed answer to the problem of personal identity, distilling and adapting the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta to help us understand that the self is in fact the root and ground of the universe. In this mind-opening and revelatory work, Watts has crafted a primer on what it means to be human—and a manual of initiation into the central mystery of existence.
Accessible, riveting, and eloquently written, The Cave and the Light provides a stunning new perspective on the Western world, certain to open eyes and stir debate.
Dale Carnegie’s time-tested advice has carried millions upon millions of readers for more than seventy-five years up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives. Now the first and best book of its kind has been rebooted to tame the complexities of modern times and will teach you how to communicate with diplomacy and tact, capitalize on a solid network, make people like you, project your message widely and clearly, be a more effective leader, increase your ability to get things done, and optimize the power of digital tools.
Learn or Die examines the process of learning from an individual and an organizational standpoint. From an individual perspective, the book discusses the cognitive, emotional, motivational, attitudinal, and behavioral factors that promote better learning. Organizationally, Learn or Die focuses on the kinds of structures, culture, leadership, employee learning behaviors, and human resource policies that are necessary to create an environment that enables critical and innovative thinking, learning conversations, and collaboration. The volume also provides strategies to mitigate the reality that humans can be reflexive, lazy thinkers who seek confirmation of what they believe to be true and affirmation of their self-image. Exemplar learning organizations discussed include the secretive Bridgewater Associates, LP; Intuit, Inc.; United Parcel Service (UPS); W. L. Gore & Associates; and IDEO.
As America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done the seemingly impossible—challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum. Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. In this subtle yet accessible book, Haidt gives you the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the curse of our eternal divisions and conflicts. If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.
The Future of the Mind brings a topic that once belonged solely to the province of science fiction into a startling new reality. This scientific tour de force unveils the astonishing research being done in top laboratories around the world—all based on the latest advancements in neuroscience and physics—including recent experiments in telepathy, mind control, avatars, telekinesis, and recording memories and dreams. The Future of the Mind is an extraordinary, mind-boggling exploration of the frontiers of neuroscience. Dr. Kaku looks toward the day when we may achieve the ability to upload the human brain to a computer, neuron for neuron; project thoughts and emotions around the world on a brain-net; take a “smart pill” to enhance cognition; send our consciousness across the universe; and push the very limits of immortality.
With their accessible compendium of philosophy and social progress, the Durants take us on a journey through history, exploring the possibilities and limitations of humanity over time. Juxtaposing the great lives, ideas, and accomplishments with cycles of war and conquest, the Durants reveal the towering themes of history and give meaning to our own.
Darrell Huff runs the gamut of every popularly used type of statistic, probes such things as the sample study, the tabulation method, the interview technique, or the way the results are derived from the figures, and points up the countless number of dodges which are used to full rather than to inform.
1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions—a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.
Acclaimed by readers and critics around the globe, A Splendid Exchange is a sweeping narrative history of world trade—from Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. to the firestorm over globalization today—that brilliantly explores trade’s colorful and contentious past and provides new insights into its future.
Translated into 100 languages, winner of the National Book Award, and named one of the 100 Most Influential Books since World War II by the Times Literary Supplement, Anarchy, State and Utopia remains one of the most theoretically trenchant and philosophically rich defenses of economic liberalism to date, as well as a foundational text in classical libertarian thought. With a new introduction by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, this revised edition will introduce Nozick and his work to a new generation of readers.
Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book. Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.
Kautilya: The Arthashastra, published in 2000 by Penguin Classics is the English edition of the classic treatise on classical economics and political science by the ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya. The text of this great book includes 15 books, each addressing one topic pertaining to the state and its economy. The books include topics like the law, the king, foreign policy, discipline, capturing a fortress, and the duties of the government rulers. Kautilya explains in detail the duties and virtues of an ideal king. The descriptions include a break up of what the ideal king should do during the course of the day and how the king should behave in typical situations. The Arthashashtra also includes detailed strategies like gift, bribery, illusion, and strength to deal with the neighbouring countries. The other important sections of the book include maintenance of law and order in the state, forests and wildlife, and economic ideas. The book discusses how the Mauryans protected forest wealth, including trees and animals. The importance of maintaining law and order for smooth functioning of the state is also given importance.
Douglas Hofstadter’s book is concerned directly with the nature of “maps” or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Gödel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.
This classic survey of crowd psychology offers an illuminating and entertaining look at three grand-scale swindles. Originally published in England in 1841, its remarkable tales of human folly reveal that the hysteria of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the junk-bonds frenzy of the 1980s were far from uniquely twentieth-century phenomena. The first of the financial scandals discussed, “The Mississippi Scheme,” concerns a disastrous eighteenth-century plan for the commercial exploitation of the Mississippi valley, where investors were lured by Louisiana’s repute as a region of gold and silver mountains. During the same era, thousands of English investors were ruined by “The South-Sea Bubble,” a stock exchange based on British trade with the islands of the South Seas and South America. The third episode involves Holland’s seventeenth-century “Tulipomania,” when people went into debt collecting tulip bulbs — until a sudden depreciation in the bulbs’ value rendered them worthless (except as flowers). Fired by greed and fed by naiveté, these historic investment strategies gone awry retain an irrefutable relevance for modern times. Extraordinary Popular Delusions is essential and enthralling reading for investors as well as students of history, psychology, and human nature.
Thinking Strategically is a crash course in outmaneuvering any rival. This entertaining guide builds on scores of case studies taken from business, sports, the movies, politics, and gambling. It outlines the basics of good strategy making and then shows how you can apply them in any area of your life.
New research suggests that the superior achievements of famous thinkers may have been more the result of mental conditioning than genetic superiority. Now you can learn to condition your mind in the same way and improve your performance in virtually all aspects of mental ability, including memory, quickness, IQ, and learning capacity.
“The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. But it was psychologists who discovered that you do not have to repeat the entire statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true. People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true. If you cannot remember the source of a statement, and have no way to relate it to other things you know, you have no option but to go with the sense of cognitive ease.
This is due, in part, to the fact that repetition causes familiarity and familiarity distorts our thinking.
People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness. In turn, what the media choose to report corresponds to their view of what is currently on the public’s mind. It is no accident that authoritarian regimes exert substantial pressure on independent media. Because public interest is most easily aroused by dramatic events and by celebrities, media feeding frenzies are common. For several weeks after Michael Jackson’s death, for example, it was virtually impossible to find a television channel reporting on another topic. In contrast, there is little coverage of critical but unexciting issues that provide less drama, such as declining educational standards or overinvestment of medical resources in the last year of life. (As I write this, I notice that my choice of “little-covered” examples was guided by availability. The topics I chose as examples are mentioned often; equally important issues that are less available did not come to my mind.)
“Psychologists refer to the inappropriate use of dispositional explanation as
the fundamental attribution error, that is, explaining situation-induced behavior
as caused by enduring character traits of the agent.”
— Jon Elster
The problem with any concept of “character” driving behavior is that “character” is pretty hard to pin down. We call someone “moral” or “honest,” we call them “courageous” or “naive” or any other number of names. The implicit connotation is that someone “honest” in one area will be “honest” in most others, or someone “moral” in one situation is going to be “moral” elsewhere.
Old-time folk psychology supports the notion, of course. As Jon Elster points out in his wonderful book Explaining Social Behavior, folk wisdom would have us believe that much of this “predicting and understanding behavior” thing is pretty darn easy! Simply ascertain character, and use that as a basis to predict or explain action.
People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption. “Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.” “Who lies also steals.” “Who steals an egg will steal an ox.” “Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.” “Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.” If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behavior should be easy.
A single action will reveal the underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behavior on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself. The procedure is not tautological, as it would be if we took cheating on an exam as evidence of dishonesty and then used the trait of dishonesty to explain the cheating. Instead, it amounts to using cheating on an exam as evidence for a trait (dishonesty) that will also cause the person to be unfaithful to a spouse. If one accepts the more extreme folk theory that all virtues go together, the cheating might also be used to predict cowardice in battle or excessive drinking.
This is a very natural and tempting way to approach the understanding of people. We like to think of actions that “speak volumes” about others’ character, thus using that as a basis to predict or understand their behavior in other realms.
For example, let’s say you were interviewing a financial advisor. He shows up on time, in a nice suit, and buys lunch. He says all the right words. Will he handle your money correctly?
Almost all of us would be led to believe he would, reasoning that his sharp appearance, timeliness, and generosity point towards his “good character”.
But what the study of history shows us is that appearances are flawed, and behavior in one context often does not have correlation to behavior in other contexts. Judging character becomes complex when we appreciate the situational nature of our actions. The U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was an arrogant bully and a liar who stole an election when he was young. He also fought like hell to pass the Civil Rights Act, something almost no other politician could have done.
Henry Ford standardized and streamlined the modern automobile and made it affordable to the masses, while paying “better than fair” wages to his employees and generally treating them well and with respect, something many “Titans” of business had trouble with in his day. He was also a notorious anti-Semite! If it’s true that “He who is moral in one respect is also moral in all respects,” then what are we to make of this?
Jon Elster has some other wonderful examples coming from the world of music, regarding impulsivity versus discipline:
The jazz musician Charlie Parker was characterized by a doctor who knew him as “a man living from moment to moment. A man living for the pleasure principle, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality arrested at an infantile level.” Another great jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, had an even more extreme present-oriented attitude in his daily life, never saving any of his substantial earnings, but spending them on whims or on expensive cars, which he quickly proceeded to crash. In many ways he was the incarnation of the stereotype of “the Gypsy.” Yet you do not become a musician of the caliber of Parker and Reinhardt if you live in the moment in all respects. Proficiency takes years of utter dedication and concentration. In Reinhardt’s case, this was dramatically brought out when he damaged his left hand severely in a fire and retrained himself so that he could achieve more with two fingers than anyone else with four. If these two musicians had been impulsive and carefree across the board — if their “personality” had been consistently “infantile” — they could never have become such consummate artists.
Once we realize this truth, it seems obvious. We begin seeing it everywhere. Dan Ariely wrote a book about situational dishonesty and cheating which we have written about before. Judith Rich Harris based her theory of child development on the idea that children do not behave the same elsewhere as they do at home, misleading parents into thinking they were molding their children. Good interviewing and hiring is a notoriously difficult problem because we are consistently misled into thinking that what we learn in the interview process is representative of the interviewee’s general competence. Books have been written about the Halo Effect, a similar idea that good behavior in one area creates a “halo” around all behavior.
The reason we see this everywhere is because it’s how the world works!
This basic truth is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, the belief that behavior in one context carries over with any consistency into other areas.
Studying the error leads us to conclude that we have a natural tendency to:
A. Over-rate some general consideration of “character” and,
B. Under-rate the “power of the situation”, and its direct incentives, to compel a variety of behavior.
Elster describes a social psychology experiment that effectively demonstrates how quickly any thought of “morality” can be lost in the right situation:
In another experiment, theology students were told to prepare themselves to give a brief talk in a nearby building. One-half were told to build the talk around the Good Samaritan parable(!), whereas the others were given a more neutral topic. One group was told to hurry since the people in the other building were waiting for them, whereas another was told that they had plenty of time. On their way to the other building, subjects came upon a man slumping in the doorway, apparently in distress. Among the students who were told they were late, only 10 percent offered assistance; in the other group, 63 percent did so. The group that had been told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan was not more likely to behave as one. Nor was the behavior of the students correlated with answers to a questionnaire intended to measure whether their interest in religion was due to the desire for personal salvation or to a desire to help others. The situational factor — being hurried or not — had much greater explanatory power than any dispositional factor.
So with a direct incentive in front of them — not wanting to be late when people were waiting for them, which could cause shame — the idea of being a Good Samaritan was thrown right out the window! So much for good character.
What we need to appreciate is that, in the words of Elster, “Behavior is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.” A shy young boy on the playground might be the most outgoing and aggressive boy in his group of friends. A moral authority in the realm of a religious institution might well cheat on their taxes. A woman who treats her friends poorly might treat her family with reverence and care.
We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course. Elster refers to contingent response tendencies that would carry from situation to situation, but they tend to be specific rather than general. If we break down character into specific interactions between person and types of situations, we can understand things a little more accurately.
Instead of calling someone a “liar,” we might understand that they lie on their taxes but are honest with their spouse. Instead of calling someone a “hard worker,” we might come to understand that they drive hard in work situations, but simply cannot be bothered to work around the house. And so on. We should pay attention to the interplay between the situation, the incentives and the nature of the person, rather than just assuming that a broad character trait applies in all situations.
This carries two corollaries:
A. As we learn to think more accurately, we get one step closer to understanding human nature as it really is. We can better understand the people with whom we coexist.
B. We might better understand ourselves! Imagine if you could be the rare individual whose positive traits truly did carry over into all, or at least all important, situations. You would be traveling an uncrowded road.
Want More? Check out our ever-growing database of mental models.
Motivation is a tricky multifaceted thing. How do we motivate people to become the best they can be? How do we motivate ourselves? Sometimes when we are running towards a goal we suddenly lose steam and peter out before we cross the finish line. Why do we lose our motivation part way to achieving our goal?
Dan Pink wrote an excellent book on motivation called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. We’ve talked about the book before but it’s worth going into a bit more detail.
When Pink discusses motivation he breaks it into two specific types: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is driven by external forces such as money or praise. Intrinsic motivation is something that comes from within and can be as simple as the joy one feels after accomplishing a challenging task. Pink also describes two distinctly different types of tasks: algorithmic and heuristic. An algorithmic task is when you follow a set of instructions down a defined path that leads to a single conclusion. A heuristic task has no instructions or defined path, one must be creative and experiment with possibilities to complete the task.
As you can see the two types of motivations and tasks are quite different.
Let’s look at how they play against each other depending on what type of reward is offered.
Money was once thought to be the best way to motivate an employee. If you wanted someone to stay with your company or to perform better you simply had to offer financial incentives. However, the issue of money as a motivator has become moot in many sectors. If you are a skilled worker you will quite easily be able to find a job in your desired salary range. Pink puts it succinctly:
Of course the starting point for any discussion of motivation in the workplace is a simple fact of life: People have to earn a living. Salary, contract payments, some benefits, a few perks are what I call “baseline rewards.” If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.
Once the baseline rewards have been sorted we are often offered other ‘carrots and sticks’ to nudge our behavior. Many of these rewards will actually achieve the opposite effect to what was intended.
‘If, then’ rewards are when we promise to deliver something to an individual once they complete a specific task. If you hit your sales goals this month then I will give you a bonus. There are inherent dangers with ‘if, then’ rewards. They tend to prompt a short term surge in motivation but actually dampen it over the long term. Just the fact of offering a reward for some form of effort sends the message that the work is, well, work. This can have a large negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Additionally, rewards by their very nature narrow our focus, we tend to ignore everything but the finish line. This is fine for algorithmic tasks but hurts us with heuristic based tasks.
Amabile and others have found that extrinsic rewards can be effective for algorithmic tasks – those that depend on following an existing formula to its logical conclusion. But for more right-brain undertakings – those that demand flexible problem-solving, inventiveness, or conceptual understanding – contingent rewards can be dangerous. Rewarded subjects often have a harder time seeing the periphery and crafting original solutions.
When we use goals to motivate us how does that affect how we think and behave?
“Most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.” Click To Tweet
Like all extrinsic motivators, goals narrow our focus. That’s one reason they can be effective; they concentrate the mind. But as we’ve seen, a narrowed focus exacts a cost. For complex or conceptual tasks, offering a reward can blinker the wide-ranging thinking necessary to come up with an innovative solution. Likewise, when an extrinsic goal is paramount – particularly a short-term, measurable one whose achievement delivers a big payoff – its presence can restrict our view of the broader dimensions of our behavior. As the cadre of business school professors write, ‘Substantial evidence demonstrates that in addition to motivating constructive effort, goal setting can induce unethical behavior.
The examples are legion, the researchers note. Sears imposes a sales quota on its auto repair staff – and workers respond by overcharging customers and completing unnecessary repairs. Enron sets lofty revenue goals – and the race to meet them by any means possible catalyzes the company’s collapse. Ford is so intent on producing a certain car at a certain weight at a certain price by a certain date that it omits safety checks and unleashes the dangerous Ford Pinto.
The problem with making extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.
Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts. Executives game their quarterly earnings so they can snag a performance bonus. Secondary school counselors doctor student transcripts so their seniors can get into college. Athletes inject themselves with steroids to post better numbers and trigger lucrative performance bonuses.
Contrast that approach with behavior sparked by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself – deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best – there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.
These same pressures that may nudge you towards unethical actions can also push you to make more risky decisions. The drive towards the goal can convince you to make decisions that in any other situation you would likely never consider. (See more about the dangers of goals.)
It’s not only the person who is being motivated with the reward that is hurt here. The person who is trying to encourage a certain type of behaviour also falls into a trap and is forced to try and course correct which, often, leaves them worse off than if they had never offered the reward in the first place.
The Russian economist Anton Suvorov has constructed an elaborate econometric model to demonstrate this effect, configured around what’s called ‘principal-agent theory.’ Think of the principal as the motivator – the employer, the teacher, the parent. Think of the agent as the motivatee – the employee, the student, the child. A principal essentially tries to get the agent to do what the principal wants, while the agent balances his own interests with whatever the principal is offering. Using a blizzard of complicated equations that test a variety of scenarios between principal and agent, Suvorov has reached conclusions that make intuitive sense to any parent who’s tried to get her kids to empty the garbage.
By offering a reward, a principal signals to the agent that the task is undesirable. (If the task were desirable, the agent wouldn’t need a prod.) But that initial signal, and the reward that goes with it, forces the principal onto a path that’s difficult to leave. Offer too small a reward and the agent won’t comply. But offer a reward that’s enticing enough to get the agent to act the first time, and the principal ‘is doomed to give it again in the second.’ There’s no going back. Pay your son to take out the trash – and you’ve pretty much guaranteed the kid will never do it again for free. What’s more, once the initial money buzz tapers off, you’ll likely have to increase the payment to continue compliance.
Even if you are able to trigger the better behaviour it will often disappear once incentives are removed.
In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward – and no further. So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading – just as executives who hit their quarterly numbers often won’t boost earnings a penny more, let alone contemplate that long-term health of their company. Likewise, several studies show that paying people to exercise, stop smoking, or take their medicines produces terrific results at first – but the healthy behavior disappears once the incentives are removed.
Rewards can work for routine (algorithmic) tasks that require little creativity.
For routine tasks, which aren’t very interesting and don’t demand much creative thinking, rewards can provide a small motivational booster shot without the harmful side effects. In some ways, that’s just common sense. As Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, and Richard Koestner explain, ‘Rewards do not undermine people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined.’
You will increase your chances for success when rewarding routine tasks using these three practices:
Any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only once the task is complete. In many ways this is common sense as it is the opposite of the ‘if, then’ rewards allowing you to avoid its many failings (focus isn’t solely on the prize, motivation won’t wane if reward isn’t present during task, etc…). However, one word of caution – be careful if these rewards become expected, because at that point they are no different than the ‘if, then’ rewards.Daniel Pink on Incentives and the Two Types of Motivation Click To Tweet
A shovel is just a shovel. You shovel things with it. You can break up weeds and dirt. (You can also whack someone with it.) I’m not sure I’ve seen a shovel used for much else.
Modern technological tools aren’t really like that.
What is an iPhone, functionally? Sure, it’s a got the phone thing down, but it’s also a GPS, a note-taker, an emailer, a text messager, a newspaper, a video-game device, a taxi-calling service, a flashlight, a web browser, a library, a book…you get the point. It does a lot.
This all seems pretty wonderful. To perform those functions 20 years ago, you needed a map and a sense of direction, a notepad, a personal computer, a cell phone, an actual newspaper, a Playstation, a phone and the willingness to talk to a person, an actual flashlight, an actual library, an actual book…you get the point. Basically, as Mark Andressen puts it, the world is being eaten by software. One simple (looking) device and a host of software can perform the functions served by a bunch of big clunky tools of the past.
So far, we’ve been convinced that usage of the New Tools is mostly “upside,” that our embrace of them should be wholehearted. Much of this is for good reason. Do you remember how awful using a map was? Yuck.
The problem is that our New Tools are winning the battle of attention. We’ve gotten to the point where the tools use us as much as we use them. This new reality means we need to re-examine our relationship with our New Tools.
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