The Results of Social Learning

The Results of Social Learning

The results of Social learning are not always positive. We learn a lot from our friends, our culture, and the people around us that we are not always aware of. We are greatly influenced by what we see others doing and believing, and this includes the things we learn and come to believe as true facts about the world. This is easily demonstrated by polling the opinions of people who get their news from traditional news outlets relative to people who get their news from fringe sources with political biases. But it is also true in spaces you would not expect.

 

To describe problems in social learning results, Gerd Gigerezner in Risk Savvy writes, “All in all, social learning leads to a paradoxical result. In France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, doctors’ beliefs about diet and health – such as taking vitamin supplements or exercising – more closely resemble those of the general public in their country than of doctors in other countries.”

 

When it comes to general knowledge and an ability to distinguish between accurate information and fads, trends, or beliefs without evidence, we like to imagine that we are smart and capable of identifying the truth. We like to believe that our beliefs are based on reality, that we have carefully considered the facts, and that we hold our beliefs for good reason. We won’t admit that we believe the things we do because others hold those same beliefs, but as the doctor example above indicates, that is often the case. The Dartmouth Atlas Project shows differences across the USA in treatments for certain conditions and rates of diagnosis for different conditions. Some of that may be genetic and reflect real health differences across the country, but some of the differences reflect different treatment approach beliefs by doctors trained in and practicing in different regions of the country.

 

Social learning results are good when they bring people together in support of democratic norms or help people understand that sitting on a couch all day and eating pizza for dinner every night are unhealthy behaviors. However, social learning results can be negative when doctor’s group around wasteful medical practices. The results of social learning can also just be random and strange, such as when people fall into fad diets or exercise programs that have no discernable health benefits or harms. What we should take away from Gigerenzer’s quote is that our knowledge is not always as rock solid and evidence based as we would believe. We should be honest with ourselves and make an effort to investigate whether our beliefs are based on real evidence or based on the people in our social groups who happen to hold the same beliefs. Perhaps our beliefs are still justifiable after strict scrutiny, but perhaps some beliefs can be let go when we see they are based on little more than the opinions and feelings of people around us.
Influence is Unavoidable - Joe Abittan

Influence is Unavoidable

The last several years has seen the rise of social media influencers across the globe. Regular people have been able to amass large numbers of followers on social media, gaining status, earning contracts with brands and advertisers, and of course, influencing people. Their influence is often times out in the open, like when they endorse a brand or product, but is often hidden, in messages about how life should be, about how one should look, and about the things that people should focus on in life. These hidden and secondary influences may also be intentional, but may also be subconscious, and ultimately, they are unavoidable. To go even deeper, these types of influences are not just limited to bona fide social media influencers, they are unavoidable aspects of all our lives and actions.

 

Whether we want to or not, we influence people’s choices. Some of us are in spaces where we are explicitly asked and expected to influence people’s choices, but many of us are not. Nevertheless, our conversations, decisions, and actions can still influence how people make choices. If we deliberately shape choice environments via a position of authority, we are a choice architect. Human resource managers, club leaders, and parents are all choice architects, with the direct mandate to shape the choices of employees, club members, and children respectively. Nevertheless, fellow employees, adjacent club members, and other kids also influence the decision spaces that choice architects create, regardless as to whether they ever intended to.

 

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler consider the implications of unavoidable influence in their book Nudge. The authors believe that choice architects have the responsibility to nudge individuals toward specific decisions and choices that the individuals themselves would deem to be the best outcome. That responsibility, according to Sunstein and Thaler cannot be shirked, because influence cannot be avoided. “It is not possible to avoid choice architecture, and in that sense it is not possible to avoid influencing people.”

Sunstein and Thaler are specifically writing about the impossibility of choice architects to try not to influence people. Most of this post has been about inadvertent influence from people who are not trying to influence others. The two ideas are separate, but important to directly connect and discuss. Choice architects still influence people and their decisions even if they try to pull back completely. Sunstein and Thaler would argue that in doing so they often end up creating decision situations where people make worse choices than if the choice architect had deliberately intervened in an attempt to help people make a better choice. One reason for this is that unintentional influence will play a greater role in the absence of choice architects actively trying to improve people’s decision-making. Imagine that your HR representative had gone through the effort of trying to map out possible health benefits scenarios for employees based on age, family dynamics, and potential health concerns. The way that employees select health insurance plans could be shaped by these mapping scenarios, deliberately trying to help people make better choices. Or, the rep could decide not to try to influence decisions and step back. By doing so, employees might hear from colleagues about a great option that worked for someone else, and select that option even if it doesn’t fit their family and health needs. Other employees may not have been encouraging everyone to select an option, but they still have the ability to indirectly and unintentionally influence the choices of others, potentially for the worse. The choice architect who tried not to influence the decision created a situation where outside uneducated voices were louder – their actions still influenced the decision space.

Choice architects don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger ecosystem and the context for each choice matters. Choosing not to influence someone doesn’t mean that you don’t still influence them or their choices. Neither does being unaware that you influence others. Influence is unavoidable, and Sunstein and Thaler would argue that it is important that we therefore think about how we intentionally and unintentionally influence others, and for choice architects to be active in helping people understand the best option for themselves in a given choice.
Open Default Nudges

Open Defaults

Our society has a lot of defaults, and for many of us, we only opt out of the default in a narrow set of circumstances. Whether it is our mode of travel, how we pay for goods, or the type of health insurance plan we are enrolled in, the default option makes a big difference in our lives. Actors within our political and economic systems know this, and the choice of default can matter a lot to individual actors, political groups, and companies. Consequentially, what default is selected, and what story we tell about the default, is a constant point of argument and debate in our country.

 

In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler discuss the importance of nudges and the ways that responsible choice architects should think about them. Choice architects may face pressure to select a default option that in one way or another benefits them personally or benefits the group or ideology they identify with. A state government may favor a default Medicaid option that is confusing and hard for individuals to use, meaning that fewer people will access services, and the state won’t have to pay as much for medical services for low income individuals. A corporate HR representative might feel pressured from a boss to have the default retirement savings rate for employees set at 2%, knowing that the company will spend less through retirement savings matching if the rate is lower.

 

But these types of defaults are not in the best interest of individuals. A health plan that is easy to use and facilitates access to necessary medical care is clearly in the best interest of the individual, but it may cost more for the government agency or corporation sponsoring the plan. A retirement plan that helps save above the rate of inflation is also clearly in the best interest of the individual, but might be more costly to a company’s bottom line.

 

As a guide for setting defaults, following with previous advice of ensuring that deliberate nudges employed by governments or corporations can survive open transparency, Sunstein and Thaler write, “The same conclusion holds for legal default rules. If government alters such rules – to encourage organ donation or reduce discrimination – it should not be secretive about what it is doing.”

 

The defaults we chose, and the reasons we select defaults should be open and transparent. If a choice architect cannot defend a default choice, then they should set an alternative default that can be defended in the open. Defaults that clearly benefit the choice architect or their interests at the expense of the individual making (or failing to make) a choice should be excluded. It is important to note that this means that choice architects have to actively make a decision with the default. Setting the default for a retirement savings plan if an individual never makes a selection to 0 is not in the best interest of the individual. An argument could be made that the choice architect attempted to remove themselves from the choice setting as much as possible by not providing a default, but that is still a choice, and will leave some people worse off than if the choice architect had selected a more defensible choice. Choosing not to set a default can be as indefensible as selecting a self-serving default.
Selfish Choice Architects

Selfish Choice Architects

“So lets go on record,” write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, “as saying that choice architects in all walks of life have incentives to nudge people in directions that benefit the architects (or their employers) rather than the users.”

 

Choice architects are those who design, organize, or provide decision situations to individuals. Whether it is the person who determines the order for food on the buffet line, the human resources manager responsible for selecting health insurance plans for the company, or a bureaucrat who designs an enrollment form, anyone who influences a situation where a person makes a decision or a choice is architecting that choice. Their decisions will influence the way that people understand their choice and the choices that they actually make.

 

As the quote above notes, there can always be pressure for a choice architect to design the decision space in a way that advances their own desires or needs as opposed to advancing the best interest of the individual making a given choice. Grocery stores adjust their layouts with the hopes that displays, sales, or conveniently located candy will get customers to purchase things they otherwise wouldn’t purchase. A company could skimp on health benefits and present confusing plans to employees with hurdles preventing them from utilizing their benefits, saving the company money while still appearing to have generous benefits. A public agency could design a program that meets a political objective and makes the agency head look good, even if it gives up actual effectiveness in the process and doesn’t serve citizens well.

 

Nudges are useful, but they have the capacity to be nefarious. A buffet manager might want patrons to fill up on cheap salad, eating less steak, meaning that the buffet does better on the margins. Placing multiple cheap salads at the front of the line, and not allowing people to jump right to steak, is a way to nudge people to eating cheaper food. Sunstein and Thaler acknowledge the dark side of nudges in their book, and encourage anyone who is a choice architect to strive to avoid the dark side of nudges. Doing so, they warn, risks leading to cynicism and in the long run is likely to create problems when employee, customer, or citizen trust and buy in is needed.
Stimulus Response Compatibility

Stimulus Response Compatibility

Have you ever had someone give you a list of words written in different colored ink and asked you to ignore the word as written and instead say the color of the ink that the word is written in? It isn’t too difficult when you see random words, but it becomes much different when you see the names of colors written in different colors, such as green written in red ink or the other way around. The difficulty with reading the color and not the word in those situations stems from poor stimulus response compatibility. The brain receives a signal in the writing of the word, and has to overcome that signal to say a different color.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein use this as an example in their book Nudge. They also demonstrate stimulus response compatibility using an example of a door with round wooden handles in a classroom that Thaler once taught in. The handles sent a signal to student and anyone else exiting the room that indicated they were intended to be pulled in order for the door to be opened. However, the doors needed to be pushed open. Describing the confusing doors and the poor stimulus response compatibility, the authors write, “you want the signal you receive (the stimulus) to be consistent with the desired action. When there are inconsistencies, performance suffers and people blunder.”

 

Stimulus response compatibility is crucial in terms of website design, road construction, slide presentations, video games, and any other setting where cues are used to indicate a desired behavior. People need to understand where to click to add an item to a shopping cart, how to scroll through a website, and how to close out of any pop-ups. Drivers need explicit cues for when it is safe to drive through an intersection, and inexplicit cues can help drivers understand when they need to slow down. Visual, audio, and other stimuli can drive predictable responses in people, and they can be used as nudges to help encourage or discourage certain behaviors. Understanding the stimulus you are providing and whether it is compatible with the behaviors you want people to exhibit is crucial.

 

Most of us probably want to develop good stimulus response compatibility, but we should also note that it can be used to frustrate people and prevent certain behaviors or goal attainment. If you have ever tried to unsubscribe from an annoying email list or newsletter, you may have experienced the challenges of intentionally poor stimulus response compatibility. Instead of having a clear link at the end of the email to unsubscribe, the link might be a dull gray color. The link might take you to a page with unclear directions on what buttons you needed to select to unsubscribe from all future emails. You may have seen a green button prominently placed that re-subscribed you instead of unsubscribed you from the emails, thwarting your plan to declutter your inbox.

 

It isn’t quite the case that these nudges are methods of mind control, but they do influence our behavior and can shape how we behave, what we learn, and real outcomes in our lives. If we are choice architects, we should recognize what behaviors we are trying to encourage, and think about the subtle cues and stimuli we can present to encourage people to make decisions that are in the best interest of the individual making the choice – as measured and determined by them, not us. Nudges are powerful, especially when a good stimulus response compatibility is in place. Importantly, nudges are not the kinds of roadblocks and obstacles that I discussed in the example of trying to unsubscribe from an email list.
The Mere Measurement Effect - Joe Abittan

The Mere Measurement Effect

I listen to a lot of politics and policy podcasts, and one thing I learned over the last few years is that asking people to vote and encouraging them to vote isn’t very effective. What is effective, is asking people how they plan to vote. If you ask someone where their polling place is, how they plan to get there, when they plan to complete their mail in ballot, and if they will sit down with a spouse to vote, they actually become more likely to vote.

 

This seems like a strange phenomenon, but it appears that getting people to talk through the voting process helps cement their plans in their mind. The process seems to be related to the mere-measurement effect, which Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about in their book Nudge. Writing about individuals who participate in surveys and their behavior after being surveyed they write,

 

“Those who engage in surveys want to catalogue behavior, not influence it. But social scientists have discovered an odd fact: when they measure people’s intentions, they affect people’s conduct. The mere-measurement effect refers to the finding that when people are asked about what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers.”

 

The mere-measurement effect, just like the questions about how and where a person actually plans to cast their ballot, is a nudge. The brain is forced to think about what a person is doing, and that establishes actual plans, behaviors, and goals within the mind. It is very subtle, but it shifts the thought patterns enough to actually influence behavior. Once we voice our intention to another person, we are more likely to actually follow through compared to when we keep our inner plans secret. This can be useful for a supermarket trying to sell a certain product, a politician trying to encourage supporters to vote, or for charitable organizations looking to get more donations. The mere-measurement effect is small, but can be useful for nudging people in certain directions.
Social Influencers

Social Influencers

Donald Trump frequently employs a rhetorical strategy built on the power of social influencers. We pay attention to what happens around us, and adjust our behaviors and even our beliefs relative to the groups that surround us. When we are around people who cuss a lot, we might cuss more. When we are around people who exercise every day, we might start exercising more. Whatever the trend in the groups of people around us, we follow suit, learning from the social influencers in our company. What President Trump does is use suggestive language to indicate a trend or a social movement that may not exist. The president frequently says things like, “many people believe,” “lots of people are saying,” or “most people think.”

 

President Trump doesn’t live in a world governed by reality and when he uses the rhetorical devices listed above, there is almost never any actual substance to his claims. But nevertheless, his statements can be influential. He is taking advantage of our susceptibility to nudges based on social conformity.

 

In Nudge Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about this approach toward nudges. When people employ these techniques, the authors write, “they try to nudge you by telling you what most people are now doing.” The nudge works because we care about people around us and want to doing what others are doing. We might not want to admit it, but we follow the cues of social influencers and pick up on what the majority opinion is.

 

We want to be in the know and keep up to date on trends and news so that we appear to be good allies to the people in our tribes. We want to be like others so that they empathize with us and want to help us if we ever need it. Doing what most people do, emulating what most people determine to be socially desirable will help ensure that we have people around who have resources to help us. This is why it is so powerful for advertisers, politicians, and people in positions of authority to tell us what most people are doing. We don’t want to be an outcast, and if most people are moving in a certain direction, then surely we should as well.
Self-Control & Environmental Effects - Joe Abittan

Self-Control & Environmental Effects

I discount the idea of the self more than most people. I don’t think that it is useful to think about ourselves as definable individuals the way most people do, and as a result, I don’t think self-control, discipline, and individual responsibility should be as prominent in our economic and political systems as we make them. From my perspective, the systems, structures, and environmental conditions of our lives shape our decisions and behaviors to a much greater extent than I think most people want to admit.

 

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler provide evidence that supports my position in their book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler write about the hot-cold empathy gap which describes how much self-control we predict we will have when we imagine a temptation versus how much self control we actually have when faced with a temptation. It is easy to say that we are going to limit how many sweets we eat at a Christmas party when we are still at home, getting ready to leave. But once we have arrived at the party and smell fresh baked cookies and pies, our self-control is effectively thrown out the window.

 

“When in a cold state,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “we do not appreciate how much our desires and our behavior will be altered when we are under the influence of arousal. As a result, our behavior reflects a certain naivete about the effects that context can have on choice.”

 

What is important to take away from this quote is that there is a disconnect between the way we expect to behave and the choices we expect to make and the actual behaviors and decisions of the moment. I believe that systems and structures matter a lot, but if we set up certain systems and structures in our lives without recognizing how hard it will be to actually make the choices and decisions that we expect to make, then we have not actually built any type of system or structure that we can be successful within. We can buy all the swiss chard that we want and write out a weekly menu full of healthy foods, but if we buy a pack of Oreos at the store convinced that we will only eat one a day for dessert, we will be unlikely to actually stick to our plan at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon when we crave something sweet.

 

Environmental effects are important and often overlooked when we think about our decisions and behaviors. This is because our reflection is done in a cold state when we are not tempted by mindless TV, cookies, or sleeping in for an extra hour. If we want to be successful and develop systems and structures that will actually encourage self-control and good decision-making, then we have to predict how we will feel when we are in hot states, and we have to arrange our environment in a way that completely prevents the choices we want to avoid. We can’t have Oreos in the house at all, we have to install a website blocker to stop us from browsing social media, and we have to place the alarm away from the bed, so we have to actually get up when it goes off. Expecting that our self-control will hold is a good way to fail when temptation is all around.
Nudges Are Unavoidable - Joe Abittan

Nudges Are Unavoidable

American capitalism makes a mistake in assuming that people have all the information they need to make a rational choice. As anyone who has ever purchased a car knows, consumers do not always have all the valuable information they need to make a good decision in an exchange, and often, one party has far more information than another. We can become experts at selecting avocados pretty easily, but it is fairly unlikely that we will become experts at selecting the best used car. We become avocado experts because we can buy them weekly and get reliable and immediate feedback when we get home and cut into them. A used car, however, is not something we buy on a regular basis, and we might make it months or years before we have a catastrophic break down.

 

Because we are not experts in everything and because there are some decisions we have to make where we don’t get reliable and timely feedback and can’t practice enough to truly know what to look for, we are subject to forces large and small that influence our decision-making. Buying a used car because you like the sales person, because the price feels right, and because of brand loyalty are examples of cognitive errors or biases where subtle nudges by the dealership or brand can influence us. Whether a salesman intends it or not, there are many factors that nudge our behavior, and they can’t be eliminated.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “In many situations, some organization or agent must make a choice that will affect the behavior of some other people. There is, in those situations, no way of avoiding nudging in some direction, and whether intended or not, these nudges will affect what people chose.”

 

The car dealership example is a somewhat nefarious and depressing view of nudges. However, the reality of Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can also be a powerful force to help improve people’s lives and not just overcharge them for a lemon. Carfax is a company that helps nudge people in the right direction, by getting them to consider the vehicle’s collision history before making a decision based on how shiny the car looks. Other nudges can be helpful for people, and if we accept that nudges are unavoidable, then we can actively step in to help design decision situations in a way that will allow people to make good decisions. An example I can think of would be visual aids to help people understand how much they can afford for a monthly car payment, mortgage, or rent. Most housing agencies suggest that people shouldn’t spend more than 33% of their monthly income on rent/mortgage. A calculator tool with a green smiley face, and a red frown face could help nudge people away from mortgages or rents that they really can’t afford, helping people make difficult and more reasonable housing decisions. Small actions can help people better understand their decisions and can serve as guides that help people do what is actually in their best interest as they themselves would understand it.
Evaluating Happiness

Evaluating Happiness

If you ask college students how many dates they have had in the last month and then ask them how happy they are overall, you will find that those who had more dates will rate themselves as generally more happy than those who had fewer dates. However, if you ask college students how happy they are overall, and then after they evaluate their happiness ask them how many dates they have had, you won’t see a big difference in overall happiness based on the number of dates that students had in the last month.

 

Daniel Kahneman looks at the results of studies like this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and draws the following conclusion. “The explanation is straightforward, and it is a good example of substitution,” he writes. Happiness these days is not a natural or an easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking. However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy were they with their love life?

 

This example is interesting because we are often placed in situations where we have to make a quick assessment of a large and complex state of being. When we buy a new car or house we rarely have a chance to live with the car or house for six months to determine if we really like it and if it is actually a good fit for us. We have a test drive or two, a couple walk-throughs, and then we are asked to make an assessment of whether we would like to own the the thing and whether it would be a good fit for our lives. We face the same challenges with voting for president, choosing a college or major, hiring a new employee/taking a new job, or buying a mattress. Evaluating happiness and predicting happiness is complex and difficult, and often without noticing it, we switch the question to something that is easier for us to answer. We narrow down our overall assessment to a few factors that are more easy to evaluate and hold in our head. More dates last month means I’m more happy.

 

“The present state of mind looms very large when people evaluate their happiness,” writes Kahneman.

 

We often judge the president based on the economy in the last months or weeks leading up to an election. We may chose to buy a home or car based on how friendly our agent or salesperson was and whether they did a good job of making us feel smart. Simple factors that might influence our mood in the moment can alter our perceived level of happiness and have direct outcomes in the decisions we make. We rarely pause to think about how happy we are on an overall level, and if we do, it is hard to untangle the things that are influencing our current mood from our perception of our general life happiness. It is important to recognize how much the current moment can shape our overall happiness so that we can pause and adjust our behaviors and attitudes to better reflect our reality. Having a minor inconvenience should not throw off our entire mood and outlook on life. Similarly, if we are in positions we dislike and find unbearable, we should not put up with the status quo just because someone flatters us but makes no real changes to improve our situation. Ultimately, it is important for us to be able to recognize what is happening in our minds and to be able to recognize when our minds are likely to be influenced by small and rather meaningless things.