Thinking fast, associations

We think fast to understand the world. One form of fast thinking is associations.

One association is the person-institution. A Harvard epidemiologists, an Oxford trained economist, a board certified physician. It’s only through the association that we get the meaning. It’s all short hand. And we need it.

If I check to see if Marc Lipsitch knows what he’s talking about (he does) I’d read his journal articles, and study organic chemistry, and well, that’s the point.

These association are asymmetrical. There is the new thing (Marc) which we are associating with the old thing (Harvard). The new thing is relatively not understood and the old thing is relatively understood. People know a lot more about Harvard than about so-and-so epidemiologists.

An interesting version of this idea came up on NPR. It was about this sound:

This sonic logo was created via an association. HBO (new) wanted to associate itself with television (old). It did that through static. But, as times change so do associations. That old static, though totally irrelevant to modern-digital-cord-cutting-viewers, became associated with HBO.

“It’s become this incredible ritual of sitting down and watching something,” explained head of brand marketing for HBO, Jason Mulderig, “and having this powerful emotional trigger that sets you in this emotional space of anticipation and waiting for what’s going to come next.”

I’ve always disliked the term human biases. They feel more like tendencies. Sometimes those tendencies optimize for short term gains, sometimes not.

One example of the long term hacking of our tendencies is the Credit Karma program.

May 2022 update, Dan Carlin on this angle but for historical figures.

The Birthday Cake Diet

This post is part of the made up startup series.

Health is a good proxy, like with finance and fitness, for understanding systems because it involves personal choice, design, social factors, marketing, culture, and so on.

Part of the reasons diets, like the diet formerly known as Weight Watchers, work is design. One design is zero point foods, like bananas. Zero points isn’t zero calories but it is zero thought. The primal diets do the same thing. Carbs bad, meat good. Fasting also succeeds due to good design. Vegetarian too. The best diets combine easy rules and identity.

Here’s the pitch: the birthday cake diet or BCD.

The first product would be a book. Or, better, a self-help book! It would outline all the advantages of better eating, all the research of behavioral scientists, and all the philosophy around intentionality and purpose. Tolle meets Tversky to defeat Tollhouse. The pitch is: the only junk food you would ever eat would be birthday cakes.

People could just decide to only eat birthday cakes. But then again there’s a fasting app that’s essentially just a timer — and it’s a great idea! The BCD frames inaction (not eating) as action (waiting for a birthday cake). Annie Duke I know would approve.

‘Okay’ you’re thinking, ‘it’s not just birthday cake that’s bad for you.’ True. So after the first book about the why, comes the second book with the how. Taking a page from WW, the second book used slices of cake as the metric. One cookie? One slice of cake. Chips? One slice. A granola bar? Half a slice. Pizza? Half a slice. Bananas? Free! It’s not as clean as the points system, but framing things as a slice of cake definitely will change some consumption patterns.

The books will kickstart the funding needed for recurring revenue. Birthday cake as a service anyone? BCAAS! The BCD wouldn’t even need to create products. This business white labels ones from the big bakers or leverages the identity and design ease to create Keto ones or whatever. Plus birthdays are regular events. The Total Addressable Market is everyone every year.

The BCD is super social media friendly. Like cheat day posts on Instagram, the BCD sells the experience of blowing out the birthday. You haven’t had cake all year, how about one that’s five feet across? The BCD is shareable. Imagine the local, regional, and national news. This is so influencer friendly. Is a low CAC tastier than birthday cake? We will find out.

So email me to sign up and join the next great eating revolution: the birthday cake diet.

This posts are too much fun. Somehow this is the second Birthday themed post, here is the birthday bet. In college a friend framed regular beer as having a ham sandwich and light beer as not. I still think of that when I see a can of Budweiser.

Linda buys a bat and brand

There’s a quarrel in psychology research over Linda the banker. First some background. Most behavioral psychology is about crafting nearly identical situations with nearly identical composites of people who, despite the near identity, act in different ways.

One example is when employees are prompted with savings cues for their 401k. Imagine that with the annual corporate messaging about insurance, vacation adjustments, and outlook projections was a form that said “Did you know that your 401k contributions from October through December are eligible for a full employer match?” Employees who get the annual message with lines like that, raise their savings rates three percent. Employees who don’t get that message don’t change their rate.

What anyone saves is dependent on their own choices, right? However with the change in one line they aren’t.

Okay, now let’s talk about Linda.

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  • Linda is a bank teller.
  • Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

When this original research was done, most people chose the second option.

And it’s wrong.

This ‘conjunction fallacy’ goes like this: there’s no way that there can be more bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement than there are all bank telllers.

This is mathematical logic. But it’s not how people think. When people hear Linda’s story they take the contextual clues that come along with it. If we could peak inside a participants mind we might see thoughts like this, ‘If you’re telling me all this stuff about Linda then it must be true that she is both a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.’

Any information that people get, people use and numbers are a special kind of information.

Numbers carry an authority.

Home values increased.

Home values increased by 8%.

And numbers lead to fast thinking. 

In his best-selling book, Daniel Kahneman framed this idea in terms of thinking fast or thinking slow. For some things in life, Kahneman wrote, we tend to think fast. Brands are fast thinking.

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There’s no interpretation here.

Numbers are like brands. Though an 8% increase in home values is a complex computation of home sales, realtor surveys, incomes, and so on, we see that and think it’s true without really thinking.

Joining Linda in the pantheon of psychology phrasing is the bat and ball problem. It looks like this:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. If the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the bat cost?

Ok, now try it this way.

Bat + Ball = $1.10, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball.

Or, the same idea in a different way.

A Ferrari and a Ford together cost $190,000. The Ferrari costs $100,000 more than the Ford. How much does the Ford cost?

Each step down slows thinking. People see the bat and ball problem the same way they see brands or 8% increases: fast.

Most of the numbers we encounter in life is like brands, the bat and ball problem or Linda the banker—our default is to move quickly past them. But to get all the details we’ll need to slow down.

Special Numbers for Special People

Brent Beshore says that people are messy. They’re weird too.

Part of the fun of social science research is putting people in situations and seeing what they do. We think people are weird because these experimental conditions have logical rigidity. It’s a world where A < B and B < C and no-way-Jose can C > A.

One way to think about this is the Illusion of Control. One paper is the Irwin and Goodwin, Special Random Numbers.

Here’s an experiment. Ask one group of individuals to choose three numbers for a lottery. Assign another group of individuals three numbers for the same lottery. Then announce to both groups that there was a such-and-such mistake. Note: a such-and-such mistake is a sign that you may be in a social science experiment.

To remedy the mistake, everyone can switch to a new set of numbers. (But wait, there’s more). The kind researchers are offering a new lottery, for those that choose new numbers, with even better odds of winning.

The punchline is that the people who choose their numbers tend to keep their numbers.

If that weren’t enough, people will bet more if they are given random numbers with meaning. “We establish that numbers generated randomly by certain systems (e.g., dates and names) are preferred to gambles of equal expected values and equal (lack of) control.”

The author’s guess, “It is possible that propensity (and associated enjoyment) underlies other types of decisions as well. For instance, very old brand names are preferred by many consumers, and enjoy a price premium. This premium holds even for commodities.”

People like what we like. People like repetition over logic. People are weird.

However, this environment is kinda weird. Normally we choose things for a reason, and if it’s because numbers represent our cat’s birthday then so-be-it.

People are weird, so let’s deal with it. Business owners, investors, and entrepreneurs alike should remember that people are messy and people are weird. We’ll give Irwin and Goodwin the final word: “our results suggest that, in general, trying to educate people away from these types of decisions will be difficult and not easily accomplished via logical arguments aimed at beliefs.”

Instead, try stories. It works for vino don’t you know.