The Complications of Spoken Confidence

Sometime last year, I came across a speech from the 2015 Toastmasters World Champion, Mohammed Qahtani. If you have a few minutes, I really suggest you take the time to watch it. OK, let’s say you only have a couple of minutes: just watch the introduction.

**SPOILERS BELOW**

While I’m not a fan of Qahtani’s parenting style (either option), I’m going to skip over that for now, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post. I’m also going to skip over the stereotypical portrayal of scientists, again, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post (but I will say that I’ve never meant a scientist who confirms that ‘stereotypical portrayal’). The main reason for writing this post is the first few minutes of the video. The startling anecdote that Qahtani shares about smoking and diabetes. Be honest — did you believe him when he said, “the amount of people dying from diabetes is three times as many dying from smoking?” Based on the audience’s response, I suspect that there are probably — at least — some of you who didn’t know this. To be clear, it’s not my aim to make you feel bad about this. If this isn’t a piece of data you’ve been exposed to at some point in your life, you probably have little reason to know. (Unfortunately, smoking is part of my family history, so I knew Qahtani was up to something when I heard him make that statement. Oh, and if you’re curious, WHO posits that smoking is the leading cause of death where 1 in 10 adults worldwide [!] die as a result of it, whereas diabetes is ‘only’ the 7th leading cause of death in the US.)

Circling back to the video… conviction. Did you notice the conviction with which Qahtani parroted the statistics about diabetes and smoking? He said it so assuredly that it almost makes you want to believe him (or at a minimum, question whether what you thought you knew about those two pieces of statistics was true or not). When I saw him do this, it reminded me of the hundreds of articles you see published each year that advise people on how to sell themselves or their company. The infamous elevator pitch.

Invariably, when you read articles (or books!) about how to give a good elevator pitch, you’re going to find that it’s very common that one of the most important things you can do in that elevator pitch is to be confident (or passionate or some other synonym that fits nicely into the author’s acronym). Don’t get me wrong, confidence is certainly important when it comes to making your elevator pitch, but in seeing Qahtani express himself with an air of confidence, it made me wonder about the human fallibility, with regard to elevator pitches.

Sure, I suspect that for people who’s job it is to listen to elevator pitches on a constant basis will tell you that they have a finely tuned BS-detector, but what about the rest of us who haven’t spent 10,000 hours listening to elevator pitches? I bet you’re thinking that you don’t have to worry about that when it comes to your field because you’re an expert. OK. Let’s accept for a moment that you are — what about all the other fields that you haven’t achieved “expert” status in — what do you do there? Well, I suppose you/we could perfect y/our BS-detector, but I suppose there’s still the possibility that you might make a type I/II error (depending upon your perspective). That is, there’s still the possibility that you might miss the BS for what it is and it’s also possible that you might incorrectly assess something as BS when it’s actually gold!

On that note, I want to leave you with the powerful words of Dr. Maya Angelou, on words:

Food is Meant to be Enjoyed: Parenting Without Borders, Part 3

It’s been almost five months since I wrote a post in this series. In fact, I looked back at the first three posts in this series and noticed that there was a rather large lag between some of the posts (Intro to Part 1 = 3+ months; Part 1 to Part 2 = ~1 month; Part 2 to Part 3 = ~5 months). I wonder if we can consider this some kind of metaphor for how it can be with parents who try to cross some things off their to do list. Anyway, my hope is that I’ll be able to post the last four parts of this series in the next month and a bit. Let’s have a quick refresher on the first three parts.

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Chapter 3, we’ll take a closer look at the different ways that children around the world eat.

~

One of the first things that struck me about this chapter was the aspect of neuromarketing. I’ve written about this in the past. From the book:

Food manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money to market their product to even the youngest eaters. The labels are brightly colored and appealing, and the foods are advertised directly to children on TV and the Internet. Supermarkets often put these kid-friendly foods at a child’s eye level so a child will be more likely to take them off the shelves and put them in the grocery cart when a parent’s back is turned.

Somehow, this seems… wrong. I totally understand the idea of free choice, free markets, and all that it encompasses, but is it really in our collective best interest to be pumping our kids full of sugar? More importantly, is it really in our collective best interest to allow an industry to surreptitiously convince our children that the foods they should be eating are found in the dry good aisle, rather than the produce section? Again, I totally understand that some folks are adamant about letting the ‘market’ correct failures, but it seems to me that in certain areas (healthcare being another one), there should be a bit more regulatory oversight.

On that note, I a little while back, I had what I thought was an interesting idea that incorporate some of the principles of Nudge:

The idea: a marketing campaign in which we tell people that, when they get unhealthy, their spouse or their kids will have to pay for it.

Circling back to the chapter, here’s another bit that I found startling:

It’s not just what kids eat, but how much. In the past thirty years, portion sizes have grown astronomically: a cookie today is 700 percent bigger than it was in the 1970s.

Seven hundred percent! That’s incredible. And that reminds me of one of the anecdotes I talked about when I wrote about how I stopped eating dessert:

There’s a story that I remember being told about Kate Hudson. I tried to find it just now, but Hudson recently mentioned something about a story in France that has similar keywords to the search I ran and so I’m not able to find it. It may or may not be true, but let’s just say that it is. When Hudson was young, her mother (Goldie Hawn), taught her an important lesson when it came to dessert: only take one bite. That is, when you’re served a piece of pie or a piece of cake, it’s not necessary to eat the entire piece. Instead, just take one bite of the dessert to “enjoy” the taste of the dessert and let that be it.

Can you imagine a sugar-starved kid only having one bite of their cake and leaving the rest? The stereotypical child that I’m imagining — of course — couldn’t do that, but I wonder if we move back to smaller portions (and smaller plates!) and teach our little ones about the importance of moderation, might this venture be a bit easier?

Before we close out this post, I wanted to share a couple of bits from the chapter about how food socialization of children in other parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, food is part of the education system. In the earlier grades, kids are learning about all the different uses for soybeans and by the time their in middle school, they’re already learning the basics of how to cook. I think most folks know that the school calendar is different in Japan (longer school days and longer school year), which allows for time for other learning. Rather than strictly focusing on academic instruction, Japanese students receive an education fit for the ‘whole’ of the person.

You might also find Sweden’s way of doing things refreshing — kids get to pick what they want to eat. The small catch is, the fridge is stocked with only healthy/good choices. In this way, a child in Sweden will never make the ‘wrong’ choice.

Eating in South Korea is similar to eating in Japan. One of the things I didn’t mention about Japan, but that is very important in South Korea, is that the family eats together. Everyone is eating the same things and there’s a real emphasis on a shared eating experience.

Moving west to France and Italy — food is meant to be enjoyed. A quick example from France:

School lunch in France is a class in itself. Children get one and a half to two hours to eat a leisurely, three-course lunch, followed by a recess. A typical menu for preschoolers in Versailles has children eating sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing and black olive garnish, roasted guinea fowl, sautéed Provençal vegetables, and wheat berries, Saint-Paulin cheese, vanilla flan, and wafers.

I suspect that the meal above probably sounds better than what you had for lunch and probably sounds better than what you’re going to be having for dinner tonight.

Famous People Alive at the Same Time — Visualized!

One of the things that I’m passionate about when I compose new posts on here is offering some sort of new perspective or a fresh perspective. Naturally, these are my two most often used tags (perspective = 66, fresh perspective = 71). This means that, of the nearly 600 posts I’ve written, in 66 of them, one of the most apt words for describing the post is perspective. Similarly, for 71 of the posts, fresh perspective is one of the most apt phrases. Also:

The primary focus of this site is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a ‘tusk’ or a ‘leg.’ Some of the topics include: psychology, business, technology, education, politics, philosophy, and even history.

In today’s post, let’s focus on that last word — history.

Within the last 6 months, I came across a post that made me think, “Yes — thank you for doing this!” The post is found on a website that is absolutely brilliant in its aim — Wait But Why. The title of the post — Horizontal History. A short excerpt:

Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.

And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about. 

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

What an innovative way to look at history, right? If you take the time to head over to the post, you’ll see that the author has a number of helpful graphics. I’m hesitant to include any in this post because I want to make sure you take the time to patronize that website. Just to take a moment to describe some of the more important ones: on the left side, you’ll find the year and then to the right, the author has charted the births/deaths of plenty of famous people throughout history. In this way, you’re able to see when certain famous people were alive at the same time.

After the author has done that, they’ve pulled out a number of “smaller” versions of these bigger graphics to talk a bit about some examples. For instance, there’s here’s a quick example:

Every time I look at the lifespan diagram, a new interesting horizontal pops out to me. Here’s one more: People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869). These guys were all in their primes at the same time. So was Lincoln. . .

I’ve spent at least a couple of different occasions looking through this graphic trying to place who was alive together. One of the interesting things I found was that much of Johann Sebastian Bach (certainly one of my favourite composers) and Benjamin Franklin’s lifespan overlapped and that Adam Smith’s (economics) lifespan is almost wholly contained within Benjamin Franklin’s (save for two months at the end of Smith’s life). In the philosophy world at this time, John Locke died when Bach was a teenager, Voltaire’s life mostly overlaps with Bach’s, and Kant was in his 20’s when Bach died. Oh, let’s not forget that Isaac Newton was in his 40’s when Bach was born and lived for about another 40 more years. And since I’ve started with Bach, I might as well tell you that Pachelbel was born about 30 years before Bach and Vivaldi was born before Bach by about 20 years.

Black Players Were Held to a Higher Standard After Jackie Robinson Broke the Colour Barrier

In (unintentionally) keeping with one of the themes from the last post — let’s talk about baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. Most people will tell you that even after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, black players had to be that much better than white players before they were given a chance to play. Having not been alive in 1947, many might take the word of those that were. However, we don’t have to! Let’s take a quick detour.

In the mid-90s and especially the 2000s, sabermetrics began making its way into the fold. In short, sabermetrics is a more sophisticated way to analyze baseball statistics. From Fangraphs:

Sabermetrics is about trying to evaluate the sport more accurately. For decades, statistics like home runs, runs batted in, batting average, wins, and earned run average were all we had to determine which players were good, which were bad, and which were in between. But as gathering, collecting, and sharing information became easier, a group of baseball teams and analysts started to develop statistics that were slightly harder to track and disseminate, but ones that were a much better reflection of talent or performance.

The most obvious example of this is the difference between batting average and on-base percentage. A walk is a positive outcome for the batter, and while it isn’t as valuable as a single or a double, it is much better than making an out. Batting average completely ignores walks, meaning that it is failing to capture important information about the hitter. Beyond that, batting average and on-base percentage assume that each hit or time on base is equally valuable, when we know that extra base hits lead to more runs than singles and walks. So there needs to be a way to credit hitters for getting on base, but also for how much their particular way of reaching base is worth. Sabermetrics, at its heart, is about making sure we capture as much of that as possible.

One of the statistics to come out of sabermetrics is called “Wins Above Replacement.” Once again, from Fangraphs:

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins.

Now that we know a bit more about sabermetrics and WAR, let’s get back to the 1950s and the colour barrier. As I said earlier, many might rely on the perceptions of those who were alive to witness baseball in the 1950s. However, we have a statistic like WAR that can help us better understand — empirically — whether black players really did have to play that much better to earn their spot on a team. From research published recently:

The data presented here provide support for anecdotal observations about racial bias in the major leagues. For decades, Black players who were promoted to the major leagues turned out to be more valuable players than White ones promoted at the same time.

Now that we know that there’s data to support the idea of this injustice, when do you think it ended? That is, when do you think that black players had to stop being that much better than white players? Before I read the research, I’m not sure what I would have guessed. Why don’t you take a second and think about what’s happened since 1950 and when you think this injustice has fallen away (or whether you think it’s still going on?) Again, from the research:

[Research] indicates that at least through 1975 (28 years after major league baseball was first integrated), Black players were still held to higher standards: simply put, they had to be better to reach the majors. After that point in time, the difference in eventual performance between White and Black players promoted to the major leagues was no longer significant.

So, it seems that in 1975, twenty-eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, the goal was finally realized. Of course, as the last sentence in the above-quoted research says, ‘no longer significant.’ That doesn’t mean that there still wasn’t an prejudicial effect, but just that in measuring that effect via WAR, it was no longer significant after 1975.

The Society for American Baseball Research (the same group behind sabermetrics) put together some helpful visualizations of the baseball demographics from 1947 to 2012. In reviewing some of them, there isn’t any ‘obvious’ reason for why the prejudicial effect is no longer significant post-1975. I’ve included one of the graphs and encourage you to read the whole article as it talks about the decline in black players in MLB.

ResearchBlogging.orgNewman, L., Zhang, L., & Huang, R. (2015). Prejudice in Major League Baseball: Have Black Players Been Held to a Higher Standard Than White Players? Journal of Sport & Social Issues DOI: 10.1177/0193723515594211

Quick Thoughts on HBO’s Confirmation

This past weekend, I had the chance to watch HBO’s Confirmation. It’s a dramatized version of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. I probably shouldn’t be wading into an issue like this, especially without a fully formulated opinion, but I wanted to put proverbial pen to pad to work out some of the things that came to mind during (and immediately following) my viewing of the film.

The first, and probably most important thing that came to mind was the undue hardship that society places onto the victims of sexual assault. I can’t imagine what it was like for Anita Hill (or her friend and family) to have to experience what she experienced, especially given that she was approached, rather than her seeking out someone to tell her story. This seems wrong. It’s unjust. Victims of sexual assault shouldn’t have to weigh the potential consequences to their lives should they come forward. It shouldn’t be part of the equation — at all. Just the fact that they’ve experienced sexual assault first hand is enough trauma for one lifetime and then to put them through the media circus… that doesn’t sound like justice to me.

Of course, most sexual assaults aren’t escalated to a high-profile nature like that of Thomas/Hill’s. That doesn’t make them any less painful or any less difficult for the victims to come forward in their communities. In fact, some might argue that it’s harder in these kinds of instances because there might not be the kind of support (i.e. skilled lawyers, etc.) for the cases that aren’t high-profile.

The second thing that came to mind was the timing of the confirmation hearing. It took place in the fall of 2011. About six months later, there were the Los Angeles riots. And about two short years after that, the OJ Simpson trial. I’m sure there were other key events that took place (as an elementary school student, I wasn’t really interested in national/world news, mainly whether or not the Blue Jays or the Leafs won). Any of these events taken on their own seem like touchstone moments for a country grappling with race relations, but then to have three like this grouped so closely together…

Some may quibble with my inclusion of the confirmation hearing with the LA riots and the Simpson trial, but to my mind, there’s a thread that links all three. I mean, I can’t know this for sure, but I bet that most people would agree that if Anita Hill were white, Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing may have gone very differently.

~

I want to circle back to my point in the beginning. Injustice. It seems that there’s a perversion of justice when someone who has suffered harm has to then consider suffering more harm in the pursuit of justice. That’s not right. Given the structure of the justice system in the US, I don’t know what the solution would be, so that there’s protection for the victim, but that the accused is able to face their accuser. It seems like this is an area ripe for innovation.

Wanna Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep!

There was some research published within the last year that you might be particularly interested in, should you be in the middle of or about to go on a diet (or you’re interested in your health in general):

This article provides an integrative review of the mechanisms by which sleep problems contribute to unhealthy food intake. Biological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms all underlie this relationship.

When I first came across this headline — the less you sleep, the more you eat — immediately, I was interested. After reading the source article (which I quoted from above), I’m heartened by the possibilities for progress in this area.

Naturally, the food we eat has an effect on how we sleep, but the insight that the fewer hours of sleep we get having an effect on how much we eat, is really important. While anecdotal, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. If I find myself up past my “bedtime,” I almost always am hungry. And because it’s late at night, my executive function is impaired. Put differently, my ability to make good choices might be compromised. In this case, a good choice would be to not eat a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream (or anything sugary, for that matter). A good choice might even be to reach for a handful of nuts or maybe an apple.

The thing that I wanted to mention in conjunction with this research is my suspicion that there’s a cumulative effect. If you stay up late and then pig out on snacks too close to bedtime, invariably, you’ll probably be waking up with less sleep than you need. As a result, your executive functioning (willpower, decision-making, etc.), will be impaired for the duration of the day. By the time you get to the end of the day, you may find yourself more tired than usual such that when it gets to the time when you’d rather go to bed, you might prefer to “reward” yourself or (decompress) by eating some sweets and staying up late… and then it all starts over again the next day. Once you’re out of balance, Newton’s laws have a way of keeping you there.

This reminds me of something I shared a few years ago about Aikido:

One of the exercises we would often do to practice this sense of blending involved our partner (or partners as it was usually in groups of three or more!) to approach us as if they were attacking us. It was our job to then move out of the way, whilst staying centered. The tempo of this exercise usually started out really slow (intentionally). Though, as time passed, our partners would then speed up. You can imagine how it might be challenging to stay centered in this kind of an activity.

During these times of practice, I remember having a bit of an epiphany.

As my partner would approach me and I would step out of the way, I noticed that the quicker (and the more out of balance!) I was, the more out of balance I would be when stepping out of the way for the next partner who was approaching. Think about that for a second: as I stepped out of the way of one partner and I was off-balance, I was that much more off-balance when stepping out of the way for the next partner. It’s almost akin to the Bullwhip Effect.

This idea of eating “after hours” seems to be a mirror image of the off-balance I experienced during the Aikido exercise. So, if you find yourself on the cusp of a diet, I suggest you consider setting (and keeping!) a strict bedtime for yourself. If you’re curious about how to start this new habit, I strongly suggest Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundahl A, & Nelson TD (2015). Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults Journal of Health Psychology : 10.1177/1359105315573427

Looking for a Husband or a Wife? It’s Time to Learn About Altruism

Human companionship. It’s something that we all crave. In fact, a quick look at Google’s autocomplete shows that two of the top three results for “how to get a” return “girlfriend” and “guy to like you.” It’s pretty clear that sharing our life with someone is something we’d like to do (generally, speaking). So, when I came across some research in this area, I thought I’d contribute to those Google searches with some seemingly helpful data. From the journal article:

Our results show that—among single individuals—engaging in prosocial behavior in any given year was associated with increased odds of finding a partner and entering into a romantic relationship in the following year.

I’ve written about the benefits of prosocial behaviour in a work environment (spend your bonus on your coworkers!), so it’s not entirely surprising to me to see that this same behaviour is also beneficial when it comes to increasing one’s odds of finding a romantic partner. Another way of looking at prosocial behaviour is altruism. Essentially, we’re talking about behaviour where one is attempting to help someone else without expecting something in return. Volunteering is an easy example of this.

You may be wondering about the study’s method. That is, did the researchers guard against the possibility that  the reverse is true (entering into romantic relatonships begets more prosocial behaviour). In fact, they did consider this:

We specifically examined whether those individuals who were single at the beginning of a time period and managed to find a partner at the end of the time period were more likely to experience an increase in helping behavior in the meantime than those who remained single. Our results showed that individuals who started a romantic relationship did not experience an increase in helping behavior compared with those who remained single.

So, it looks like the researchers feel pretty confident in their conclusions about volunteering helping to lead one to a romantic relationship. Before you run out to your local Red Cross or Salvation Army, I wanted to offer a different perspective on this research. In particular, I thought I’d look at some of the historical statistics around volunteerism and marriage. That is, if we accept the premise of the research, we might expect to see there to be some covariance between volunteerism and marriage. That is, as marriage goes up, we might expect that volunteerism would also go up. Similarly, as volunteerism goes down, we might expect that volunteerism would go down.

I had a harder time than I thought I might in trying to find data on these two subjects. However, I did come across a couple of things that gave me pause about this research. The first, volunteerism. According to some research by the US government, it looks like volunteerism is up, recently. That is, it looks like the propensity for volunteering is higher than it used to be (see graph). The second, marriage rates. If the initial research I shared about prosocial behaviour is true, we’d expect to see higher marriage rates (than there used to be). Here’s the headline from the Pew Research Center a few years ago: Record Share of Americans Have Never Married. So, it’s probably fair to say that marriage rates are down. This doesn’t bode well for our initial research on prosocial behaviour.

One last thing I wanted to share on this: millennials. There’s been plenty written about millennials, but I want to focus on the two things we’re talking about today: volunteering and marriage. Compared to previous generations at the same age, millennials are far less likely to get married. Millennials also differ from Gen X’ers when it comes to volunteering:

… higher rates of community service and volunteering. I mean, let’s face it, for Gen X, volunteering was a punishment. You know, you did something wrong at college, you do community service. (Laughter) But the Millennials — it’s more of a norm.

~

It’s quite possible that the effect realized by the initial research on prosocial behaviour is true, but that it’s not big enough to make a dent in some of these bigger statistics. It’s also possible that some of the counterpoints I’ve raised aren’t as analogous as I think they are. Either way, I think the research in prosocial behaviour is important and I certainly hope you take the chance to spend some time “giving without expecting anything in return.”

ResearchBlogging.orgStavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). A Longitudinal Analysis of Romantic Relationship Formation: The Effect of Prosocial Behavior Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 521-527 DOI: 10.1177/1948550614568867