Friday, 25 September 2009

They Know Who You Are

Social networks are definitely a means of telling others something about ourselves. We make a statement about ourselves, who we are, who we would like to be, or better how we want others to think about us. The pictures we post. The information we upload. We carefully choose what to say and what not, we want to paint a picture of our ideal self let's say. admit it or not! So there are guys and girls posting only pictures of their parties, so every one else is going to think: "Ohhh look at this guy, he's cool. He's always partying!". You know what I mean. We can therefore make some inferences about a person by looking at her Facebook or MySpace, or Flickr, or whatever profile. We all spend some time "voyeurizing" (allow me to use this term) others profiles! Nothing new until now...

The last news I read today is rahter more interesting. Two students at MIT started a bizarre new project (apparently nicknamed Project Gaydar): basically by analyzing one's data on Facebook, mainly one's friends, they claim to be able to understand whether someone is gay or straight! The idea behind the projects is based on the concept of homophily: we usually stick around with people similar to us. Therefore if all my friends in Facebook are over fifty years old, I am probably not a kid. If all my contacts on MySpace are musicians I'd probably be something similar. If all my friends are gay, well you see where I am heading towards.

This means that probably when the software will be finalized they are going to be able to tell whether I am likely to be a terrorist, a musician, an old jew, a painter, a young but fervent calvinist, a bus driver, a drag queen and so on. Interesting! Anyway, as I've written above it is not surprising that someone can pretend to be Sherlock Holmes and try to infer various stuff by looking at others' profiles. The issue is not that. What is more frightening is that others may analyze my friends in order to try to understand (?) who I am. Only think about future employers: one day they may tell you: "Well, Mr. X, you looked like the ideal candidate. You seem to have all the qualities we needed, but our software warned us about you dirty communist affiliations. We are sorry, but we cannot hire you." Ok, maybe you are thinking that in this case it is a positive thing for the firm since we all know communists (!), but damn it! where's privacy? What if they are wrong? What if, instead, they hire me and then discover I actually am a communist? What would George Orwell say?

As Written in one Malcolm Gladwell's article on the New Yorker (on another theme): "Apparently human beings don't need to know someone in order to believe that they know someone". I personally think that's the key.

Anyway, the article I am referring to (the one from which I learned this news) ends like this: “You can do damage to your reputation with social networking data, and other people can do damage to you. I do think that there’s been a very fast learning curve - people are quickly learning the dos and don’ts of Internet behavior,” said Jason Kaufman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University who is studying a set of Facebook data. “Potentially everything you ever do on the Internet will live forever. I like to think we’ll all learn to give each other a little more slack for our indiscretions and idiosyncrasies.”

I think this is the right way of ending my post too.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

On the Social Nature of Evil

Last 9th of September I wrote a post commenting on an academic article written by S. Ghoshal. In his article, Ghoshal, criticised some of the basic assumptions of classic management theories and claimed that events such as the Enron crack & Co. were happening because of the "ideology-based, gloomy vision" of such theories. Basically, in a few words, we can say that the "wrong" mental programming managers received was creating evil actors (you can read the full post here: Questioning the Basic Assumptions of Management Theories). Therefore, according to this article, the bad acting of some managers could be brought back to some of the features of the system/context. We are not intrinsically evil or good. Obviously there are people who are more "good" than others. But we should pay attention to the (social) context in which we act. Let's understand why.

One of the first tendencies I want to talk about is the famous Fundamental Attribution Error. Frequently described as one of the funding principles of Social Psychology, it describes the tendency for human beings to overestimate dispositional, personality-based explanations when trying to understand/explain someone actions, and therefore undervalue the influence of context. Let's make a quick example to make things clearer: I meet Peter, an old friend of mine, on the street. I'd like to have a chat with him, since it's been a long time since we last speak to each other. He only stops for less than 30 seconds and then runs away. I think to myself: "what a jerk he has become!". I don't take into consideration the context: Peter had to go to a funeral and was in a hurry. Moreover he was depressed and emotional because of the funeral and wasn't feeling like speaking to anyone. This was a very silly example but you see what I mean. I bet that you can think of a lot of examples of similar attribution errors.

Therefore sometimes we tend to overestimate the probability of people being evil (or rude, or shy, or inadequate, etc...) because of this bias we have. We tend not to take into consideration the power of context.

Let's dig deeper. In 1961 a Yale Researcher, Stanley Milgram, performed an experiment in order to understand how people react to authority under certain conditions, such as obeing to orders conflicting with their personal conscience. The results of the experiment were debated for years and today the experiment is frequently cited when trying to explain certain extreme events and/or behaviours (e.g.: the holocaust).

Let's see very briefly how Milgram Experiment works (you can read a more detailed explanation of the experiment here: Milgram Experiment): Participants were recruited with ads on newspapers and later told that they were participating to an experiment on learning (and that they were going to be paid for that). The experiment needed three persons/roles called "teacher", "experimenter" and "learner". Actual participants were assigned to the "teacher" role whereas researchers were in the other two positions. Participants did not know that the "learner" or "victim" was actually an actor.

After that, "learners" had to fulfill some kind of "learning task" and were later asked to answer some questions, "teachers" were controlling them. When "learners" gave wrong answers "teachers" had to to administer an electric shock to the victim whereas when the answer given was correct "teachers" could ask the next question. Every time the shock had to be increased by 15 volts. Shocks could range from 15 volts (hardly perceptible) to 450 volts (dangerous)! Obviously "victims" weren't receiving any actual shock, they were just pretending by lamenting and screaming when administered shocks. The role of the "experimenter" was to encourage the "teacher" to administer shocks when they wanted to halt the experiment.

The results were kind of unexpected. Even though many subjects were showing signs of tension and unease, a large percentage of them (65% in the first set of experiments) were arriving up to the final, massive 450 volt shock therefore obeying the experimenters's orders!

In commenting the results of the experiment, british philosopher and sociologist Z. Bauman wrote: cruelty correlates with certain patterns of social interaction much more closely that it does with personality features or other individual idiosyncracies of the perpetrators. Cruelty is social in its origins much more than it is charactereological.

We can therefore understand how context plays a crucial role in determining who we are. Incentive systems strongly determine how we act. We cannot say that people working at Enron (I'm using Enron as an example, but you can use the example you like the most) were evil, perverted humans. On this concern, American psychologist Philip Zimbardo (author of the controversial experiment famous as The Stanford Prison Experiment) wrote the book The Lucifer Effect. The concept describes the point in time when an ordinary, normal person first crosses the boundary between good and evil to engage in an evil action. [...] Such transformations are more likely to occur in novel settings, in “total situations,” where social situational forces are sufficiently powerful to overwhelm, or set aside temporally, personal attributes of morality, compassion, or sense of justice and fair play.

If you want to have an overview on the topic and/or hear more about the above-mentioned experiments check out the following video:

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Workplace Humour

Today I attended a class on the “human aspects” of organizational life. Aspects such as mischief, sexuality and humour in working contexts are not taught very often in “Organizational Behaviour” or “Human Resources Management” lectures. I thought it was pretty interesting and decided to post something about it in my own little blog!

Using M. Weber words we can say that modern organizations are bureaucracies. The concept of bureaucracy means, in a few words, the control of work through hierarchies, tasks, rules, offices, etc... In the ideal typical (theoretical) concept of bureaucracy there is no place for feelings and emotions. In fact, Weber wrote that in the purest form of bureaucracy there would be no place for “love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation”. Keep in mind that this is a merely pure, theoretical construct, useful to grasp some aspects of reality. An ideal type. As for every theory there may not be an exact representation of it in the real world. Therefore, even if some people seem to think the opposite, Weber was well aware of the existence of human variables in the real world and was not against it.

Luckily, we may say, the workplace is full of emotions. We all know it: organizations are made of people. Anyway, we can’t even deny the fact that too many emotions in the workplace can harm, in one way or another, the accomplishment of an organization’s goals. That’s the same for us all: when we are overwhelmed by emotions we are not able to act rationally and to get things done. Moreover, we can say that (taking the boss’s view) the organization is a place where all efforts should be concentrated in getting things done efficiently. As written in Watson’s book Organizing and Managing work “if there is to be love, it is to be love for work, [...] if there is to be desire, it is to be desire for the formal rewards of pay and security that are offered for contributing to corporate success.” Anyway, workers’ emotions are not easily manageable by managers!

The type of emotional display that I want to write about is humour. We all like it. It makes life better and it shortens the boring moments at work. Workplace humour is a classic. Who has never spent some minute (or hours...) watching stupid videos in YouTube when supposed to work? Otherwise, I guess that you all have seen some type of cartoons mocking one or another aspect of the working life. Just type workplace cartoons in Google Images and you’ll see what I mean. Such cartoons are usually hanged in some place in the office (e.g.: notice board, restrooms, informal spaces, etc...)

Anyway, the theme of my post is: What is the deeper role of humour at work? (apart from the obvious answer “well, I guess to have fun”). The things that I am writing here comes from the previously mentioned book written by Tony Watson.

You maybe have noticed that workplace humour often tends to mock unpleasant aspects of work. A classic example are meetings: hundreds of cartoons represent managers sitting around a table saying some stupid thing or commenting last year results or taking senseless decisions. Anyway, in the collective imagery, meetings are often seen as one most useless and boring things in business life. Practically a waste of time. Another classic example are cartoons representing the moment during which a manager is firing an employee. Not exactly a pleasant situation in real life.

Workplace humour helps us to deal with what we dislike or fear. It has a debunking function. Watson uses the metaphor of humour as a glimpse into the abyss. That’s why he writes, people working in emergency services or hospitals are more likely to joke about matters of life or death or to use so called black humour. People whose patience is threatened by annoying customers or managers are going to make jokes about them more often. And so on and so forth.

Therefore one of the main functions of humour at work (but let’s admit it: also in other aspects of life) would be to help us coping with the anxiety of the human condition. A cathartic function: Fears, stress, worries, inhibitions, defects, etc... are temporarily forgotten.

... And after that, as Watson writes, “Having laughed at what might otherwise frighten us into a loss of control in our lives (madness even), we return to our serious demeanour and travel onwards.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Dark Side of the Green Side

Today, during one of my endless surfing sessions, I read a Blog entry by Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) discussing a forthcoming article (Do Green Products Make Us Better People?) on the various implications of the green effect on consumers. The findings of the article, let me warn you, are kind of unexpected. As discussed in a previous post in this blog (Are You Into Ecopornography?) we have witnessed, in the last years, an incredible increase in the amount of green products offered in the market. This probably reflects the fact that consumers not only choose what to buy on the basis of the price and/or quality, but also on the basis of social and ethical factors. Being green is seen as cool. Being green is a socially desirable attribute. It makes you fell good. No doubts.

After a series of experiments, the two researchers (Mazar & Zhong) found out that:
  1. the mere exposure to green-related concepts and/or products through priming would lead to a subsequent activation of our social responsibility and therefore to a more likely altruistic/green behaviour.
  2. However (and here comes the interesting one): people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.
The findings reported in point 1 are in line with the research on the phenomenon of priming. A precedent series of stimuli can influence our subsequent behaviour. For example some studies found out that exposure to a series of exclusive restaurant pictures was positively influencing manners in a subsequent "eating situation". Otherwise as described in M.Gladwell's book Blink an exposure to a series of words recalling old age was affecting the speed at which people were walking out of the laboratory after the experiment.Therefore accordingly to previous research green priming (let me call it like that), influences subsequent behaviour in a positive way.

The findings reported in the second point are more interesting and unexpected. It looks like that, after a green purchase we would be more likely to feel like: "Ok, I've done my part. My conscience is now clean. Let's rob a bank!" (or something like that). The authors explain their findings like that: "our studies suggest that social and ethical acts may contribute to a more general sense of moral self than previously thought, licensing socially undesirable behaviors in distant domains." (i.e.: cheating or stealing money).

Doing good would make us feel OK with ourself and therefore more likely to act in a anti-social or self interested way in a latter situation. Therefore if you did something good today, pay attention to what you may find yourself doing this evening!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Google Fast Flip: Looking for Old New Ways to Read News

We all read news on the Internet, don't we? Some of us have their favourite sites or portals where every morning, and then some other times during the day, we go and check what's new. Others, maybe are still more into traditional newspapers, in fact, the phisical experience of reading a newspaper, going through its pages, skipping the boring sections, reading other readers' letters, etc... is always a pleasent one we can say. Ok: of course you can do both things, read newspapers and surf the web looking for news.

Google has tried to synthetize the best side of both experiences by launching a new product in its Google Labs: Google Fast Flip. The product, we read, is conceived to mirror the way readers flick through magazines and newspapers. What we get in the homepage is in fact a series of screenshots from the various publications divided by popularity, topics and sources. Of course then a search function is always present (it's always Google we are taliking about!). If you want to dig deeper into a particular article you just have to click on the screenshot and there you are. Otherwise you can just flip through the pages as you would normally do with your favourite newspaper.

In fact that's exactly what K. Bharat (founder of Google News) sayd in an interview: "We wanted to bring the advantages of print media, the speed and hands-on control you get with a newspaper or magazine, and combine that with the technical advantages of the internet. We wanted the best of both worlds".

So will be Google defining the new paradigm of news reading or will this only be a nice attempt?

Personally, my first impression of Google Fast Flip was positive (but I am biased towards Google). The fact that also an IPod version is available made it even more interesting for me! I liked the fact that you get to read the news pretty much as you do with Google News but you have nicer layout and the actually nice feature of flipping the pages. Maybe it is only an infatuation, maybe that's how I will read the news in the future. We will see...

Anyway, if you want to have a look, here's the link:

Monday, 14 September 2009

Why do Crack Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?

Co-author of the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt, gives a nice lecture on the topic "Why do crack dealers still live with their moms?". He explains why drug dealing is not the profitable business many would think.

Toward the end of his lecture he explains some applications of classic economics theories to actual life in drug selling. The funniest is (at around 19:50):
Economic Theory: Every two-person game has a Nash Equilibrium (Game Theory).
Real life (drug dealers): If we start shooting around there [the other gang's territory], nobody, and I mean you dig it, nobody gonna step on their turf. But we gotta be careful, 'cause they can shoot around here too, and then we all fucked (obviously it is a drug dealer speaking).

Well, if this is not a perfect application of the Prisoner's dilemma!

Here's the video:

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Create Your Own Melody with a Few Clicks

After a couple of kinda dense topics, it's time for a more entertaining one. Here is a site I found surfing on the web. The site offers a very simple application to create your own little piece of music. You are basically given a number of tracks with assigned sounds. You simply need to design your own melodies. Once you are happy with the result all you have to do is adjust the overall mix, set the tempo and you're done! Here is the link:

And here is my first experiment:

Interesting People & Interesting Books: Nassim Taleb & The Black Swan

In his book The Black Swan, before the explosion of the subprime crisis, he wrote:

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

Seems to reflect reality, isn’t it?

We are talking about Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Today famous for his two bestselling books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. It would be difficult to label him. He is surely a writer/essayist and a researcher, but not only. He’s also a quant, the term used to describe experts in mathematical finance, or better quantitative analysts. He in fact works in this field. But this would not anyway be enough to describe him accurately. He define himself as a sceptical empiricist. In his web site we can find this description that does a good job in giving an idea about him: My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the courage to sometimes say: I don’t know...." (You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race. This quote tells more about him than any other label.

Taleb was born in 1960 in Lebanon from a wealthy and well-educated family. He later studied in various countries and universities: MBA from Wharton School (Pennsylvania, US) and Ph.D from the University of Paris. As a result of his multi-national background he speaks English, French and Arabic. But he also has a a conversational fluency in Italian and Spanish, and reads classical texts in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and ancient Hebrew. Other things that struck me when reading one of his books are the breadth and depth of his knowledge. I mean, if it happens to you to hold in your hands The Black Swan, take a look at the bibliography. It’s incredibly huge and varied believe me. This means that, not only he has a strong financial background because of his studies, but that he also spends most of his time reading and studying all kinds of books. Among the people he talks about, names such as Mandelbrot, Popper, Plato, Yogi Berra, Sextus Empiricus, Bacon, Hume, Russel and other eminent writers, scientists and philosophers.

Taleb’s main worrying seems to be that of epistemology. He doesn’t like the fact that the way in which we know the world and therefore act accordingly is frequently so wrong. That’s why the first part of his book The Black Swan is all dedicated to dismantle some of the patterns of thinking that we adopt in our everyday life when dealing with all kinds of stuff, mainly knowledge-related. Black Swans are usually strongly-influential and unexpected events that we can only “predict” (i.e.: Damn! I knew it! syndrome) only once they have already happened (e.g.: 9/11, the rise of Google, world wars, the success of the Harry Potter saga, you name it). The metaphor of the Black Swan is a tribute to Karl Popper’s concept of falsification. In fact: until a certain point in history man believed that swans could only be white. Thousands and thousands of observations were, on a daily basis, confirming that belief. One day, though, when Australia was discovered (XVII century), also black swans were discovered. Thousands of years of observations were invalidated from a single observation!

According to Taleb we are so bad at predicting things, but we do not want to acknowledge that! In fact, many of us think we live in Mediocristan, whereas evidence shows that rather we live in Extremistan. Basically, he explains this other metaphor with the following straightforward example: Take 1000 people and gather them together in a baseball field. After that you weigh them and get the overall weight Now, try to imagine the heaviest human being you can think of (that can still be called a human being) entering the room and add him to the scale. Despite of his huge size he would still represent a small percentage of the overall weight and would only slightly affect the average. This is Mediocristan: a place where the extraordinary events have a small effect on the total. A Gaussian world let’s say. Now, imagine Bill Gates enters the baseball field. What would be the effect on the average worth? Huge. That’s Extremistan.

In his book Taleb, not only exlain the nature of black swans, but also tell us why we have such a hard time recognising them. It’s up to you to read the book and discover more about it! Now, in fact, I fear that this post is becoming dangerously too long to read without hating me. I hope I was able to stimulate your interest. Therefore let me conclude, by strongly suggesting to read this book if you are interested in knowing more about humans and the way in which the world works.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Questioning the Basic Assumptions of Management Theories

After the great corporate scandals in the United States that we all know (e.g.: Enron) and after the consequent emanation of laws such as the famous Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Indian professor and management guru, S. Ghoshal (in the picture) wrote a sharp article entitled Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices. In this interesting article he criticizes the scientific pretense of some of the most famous management theories (such as Transaction Cost Economics, Agency Theory, Game Theory, etc... ) and most of their basic, underlying assumptions. According to the Indian professor, the effects of these thoeries are already clear in the title, but I'll say more about that later.

First of all he starts by asserting that the fact of studying management as if it was a "natural science" (trying to discover patterns and laws) has lead to "the exclusion of any role for human intentionality or choice". Therefore little or no space is left, for example, to ethics and morality. Furthermore, he claims, this approach ignores some of the basic differences between different academic disciplines. The main distinction here is between natural sciences and humanities. Ghoshal claims that this "pretense of knowledge" has undoubtedly led to some benefits, but also that the costs have been to high.

He argues that theories in social sciences tend to be "self fulfilling": "A theory of subatomic particles or of the universe— right or wrong—does not change the behaviors of those particles or of the universe. [...] In contrast, a management theory—if it gains sufficient currency— changes the behaviors of managers who start acting in accordance with the theory. A theory that assumes that people can behave opportunistically and draws its conclusions for managing people based on that assumption can induce managerial actions that are likely to enhance opportunistic behavior among people".

After that he later attacks the "ideology-based, gloomy vision" of these theories. Basically all these theories have their departure point in negative assumptions about human beings and institutions. Our Homo Economicus is basically a rational, opportunistic, self-interested, greedy and benefit maximizer being. As Friedmann suggests, his last and foremost important goal as a manger is to create shareholders value. Nothing else. In this regards, Ghoshal writes: "Combine agency theory with transaction costs economics, add in standard versions of game theory and negotiation analysis, and the picture of the manager that emerges is one that is now very familiar in practice: the ruthlessly hard-driving, strictly top-down, command-and-control focused, shareholder- value-obsessed, win-at-any-cost business leader [...]". These assumptions are by now part of our common sense. But, are we really all like that?

The results of teaching such theories would be dramatic. Corporate scandals would have occurred mainly because of this dangerous "mental programming" that mangagers have received during their study years in business schools and because of the world view this way of thinking promotes.

Indeed the article makes some very strong statements. When I first read it, I was like "WOW! I had never thought about that!. Could it really be like Ghoshal writes?". Surely I am not sufficiently strong in the field to claim whether Ghoshal is right or wrong. Probably he is neither right nor wrong. I also think that some of the causal links between management thoeries and managers' behaviour have to be investigated. But, overall I think that his article is really interesting and engaging because it challenges most of the "great thoeries" that we have learned at school and that today are so embedded in managerial common sense. Moreover the mushrooming of disciplines such as "Business Ethics" and "Corporate Social Responsibility" in Business programmes is undoubtedly a symptom of the shared necessity to rethink business and business-related practices from a different perspective.

If you are interestend in the article, here is the bibliographic reference:
Ghoshal, S. (2005): Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices. Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 4/1: 75-91.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

How Many Cigarettes Are You Smoking!!??

I don't know if it has ever happened to you to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital or otherwise to spend some time with someone sufferring of some psychiatric disease, like schizophrenia. Well, if the answer is yes, you would surely have noticed that psychiatric patients smoke a lot. If the answer is no, then trust me please. Anyway, when I say that they smoke a lot I truly mean it. That's one of the things that I couldn't avoid to notice when I worked there. A large percentage of them was literally smoking for the whole day and frequently having one cigarette right after the other. Moreover, you could also deduct it from the brown colour of their fingers. Obviously, also "normal" people (please, allow me to use this term even if inappropriate) can smoke a hell of a lot, but the percentage is much lower. Just to make myself clear: according to some research smoking rates are as high as 80% among schizophrenic patients, whereas in the general population the percentage is around 25%.

Now of course the question: Why do they smoke so much? I did some research on my own and "discovered" some of the main reasons. Some are more intuitive, others are not. Let me tell you a couple of the things I found out (from the more to the less obvious one)

1) Smoking relieves anxiety: I don't think this first one needs further explainations;

2) Smoking is more common in deprived groups: It looks like "less lucky" people tend to smoke more cigs. And it also looks like "less lucky" people are more prone to develop some kind of mentall illness. Smoking would be a way to cope with the anxiety caused by their condition;

3) Smoking as a pastime and as a social facilitator: Patients in psychiatric hospitals have to deal with boredom. Long days, nothing to do. Smoking can, in some way, help to beat time. Moreover smoking is also a social activity. Patients gather together and use cigarette smoking as a ritual;

4) Smoking as an "antidote" (the most interesting one!): Some research seems to prove that cigarette smoking in psychiatric patients can have some positive effects like reducing some of the symptoms of psychotic illness, reduce some of the antipsychotics side effects, improve cognition, etc...

Here are therefore some of the reasons why most psychiatric patients smoke so much. Now, other questions come naturally: should doctors help them to quit or should they consider it only as a "minor thing" considering all the problems they have? Would it be possible to help them to quit? Maybe smoking is one of the few pleasures left to them?

I really would like to answer all these questions, but, please forgive me, I really have to go and smoke a cigarette...