Layover transitions

Mojito © Natalia Martinez

It might be odd but airports make me feel optimistic. The constant coming and going, the ebb and flow of people and things in perpetual motion – they leave me somewhat refreshed by the realization that inertia moves everything forward and that change is transient. I’ve been in airports too many times to count – on vacation, immigrating from one country to another, leaving to go to college, flying oversees with no return flight booked, dropping off a loved one – and almost every time has represented some sort of change (as trite as that may sound). In this sense, airports are communities of people in transition, and the fact that we can recognize that similarity in one another, sometimes makes me smile as I lug my carry-on around.

Worth sharing

Setting off to do things I can’t disclose…

© Natalia Martinez

Based on this 5-minute TED talk, I have decided to take on 30-day challenges. As I tend to do, I am firmly planted in my logic that “I can do almost anything for 30 days,” a close relative of what our coxswain used to yell in intramural crew practice “You can do anything for the next 20 seconds.” Despite being a blatant psychological crutch with a dash of underhanded self-deception, I’ve decided this logic is healthy. More importantly – as attested to in the video, it has the potential to propel us forward, give us new habits, empower us to try new things or (actually) stick with old ones.

Now, I know this will seem anticlimactic, but I can’t actually share what my 30-day objectives are! To explain this logic, here is another TED talk of the short-but-enlightening kind. The idea presented in it is that we shouldn’t share out goals! Although it sounded a bit counterintuitive to me (I assumed that sharing one’s objectives made one feel more accountable for them), psychologists have found that sharing your goals makes you less likely to follow through with them.

Why? Because people usually respond positively to our stated intentions, making us feel content even before we have actually. done. any.thing.

The warm feeling we get from having social approval/acknowledgement of our goals makes us too happy, thus replacing the feeling of urgency and the awareness of the hard work that the intentions-into-reality trick usually requires.  It makes us complacent.

So I guess I will report back only after the next 30 days have passed! 🙂

See what sticks

Sunrise at Masada © Natalia Martinez

Some articles I enjoyed reading lately:

Chug for Growth: the effect of beer on economic growth!

The benefits of loyalty and commitment: a WSJ article on research into the health and life benefits that come from staying loyal to a job, a sports team, a friend, a spouse.

WSJ book review of “Unnatural Selection”: gives an overview of how the ratio between men and women is shifting due to gender-selective abortions and talks about the potential consequences.

Food for (lunch) thought

A pair of strangers (Cape Town, SA) © Natalia Martinez

A little something to think about during lunch break:

Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity – Clay Shirky

Off the map…

Milk is not for refrigeration (Shanghai, CN) © Natalia Martinez

I went to a great talk last night by Ann Mack, Director of Trendspotting at JWT. I was familiar with the awesome work that JWT Intelligence does from having interned at their Cape Town office one summer, but it was great to be reminded of the great research and resources they have available to the public! A lot of good stuff there, people!

In any case, at one point in the presentation we watched the Windows 7  Phone Ad in the context of one of the emerging trends. Watch the video, it’s pretty funny in that this-is-so-true kind of way. The lesson is simple: Be. Here. Now. and I am taking it to heart this weekend.  Starting today at midnight, I plan to use my phone exclusively for (gasp!) calling. There shall be no compulsive email checking, no timely email responding, no Facebook or Twitter. Instead, I will read and go outside.

Fingers crossed. Onward, weekend of technology freedom!

Wired for Optimism?

Ana Maria Island © Natalia Martinez

I thought I’d share this article from Time Magazine, entitled “The Optimism Bias.” As a clarification, “optimism bias” (the often misguided belief that our future will be better than our past and our present).

I won’t paraphrase the article since it is a good read to begin with. It often makes references to research conducted by the author or otherwise, which I find a breath of fresh air – I don’t need another fluffy article about optimism being pretty. I want to know how our brains are wired for optimism and why it has persisted over time despite not giving us an accurate perception of reality. This article does just that.

I’ll kip entire sections based on specific data, but here are a couple of more abstract quotes/takeaways:

“People with mild depression are relatively accurate at predicting future events.” People suffering from depression are not. Interestingly, neither are optimists!

“Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education or reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.”

“Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them.”

“Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry — an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience.”

“A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain […] the core function of memory could in fact be to imagine the future – and enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.”

“Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel […] It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard world in anticipation of a future reward. […] While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price – the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits […] The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death has to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.”

“The problem with pessimistic expectation is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way […] Examining brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that students’ brains responded differently to mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid […] when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened [brain] activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.”

“Brains that don’t expect good results and assume the bad, “will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions.”

How do we maintain a rosy bias even when information to the contrary is readily available? “The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.”

“It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases […] all strongly support this hypothesis. Yet optimism is also irrational and can lead to unwanted outcomes. The question then is, How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls? I believe knowledge is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us.