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Lectures for a New Year: Turning Squares into Diamonds

Today, a lecture that's funny and a bit geeky around the edges. In this talk, adman Rory Sutherland tells a series of funny anecdotes about history, advertising, and the perception of value. That may not sound entertaining, but it really is -- it's a rollicking good time, and it's really smart stuff, without going over anyone's head. Alternating between historical examples and modern ones, Sutherland pokes fun at trends (for example, calling a shared plate of pub fries "Food 2.0"), but eventually gets to the heart of his point: advertising is largely concerned with creating intangible value, which actually is valuable, despite being highly notional. Further, intangible value (and thus enjoyment, or a sense of wealth) can be found in things you already have -- you just have to look for it.

The most hilarious part of this talk comes around the 13-minute mark, when Sutherland shows focus group footage of people eating Shreddies, a square Chex-like cereal that was in the process of being rebranded by rotating it 45 degrees to make "diamonds." Wonderful.

Topics: how to improve train travel with booze and models, placebo education, rebranding the potato, veiled prostitutes, smiling street signs, Prussian high-value iron jewelry, Warhol on Coke, the portability of food, contextual alcoholic drinks, a button to save money, rebranding Shreddies, and the nature of poetry.

For: students of history, and people who enjoy funny anecdotes.

Representative Quote: "Every country has a contextual alcoholic drink. In France it's Pernod: it tastes great within the borders of that country, but absolute shite if you take it anywhere else."

Further Reading and Viewing

Sutherland also gave a TED Talk called Sweat the Small Stuff, which is well worth a look; there's also a TED Q&A which contains some delightful profanity. He also has a book out, though actually purchasing it seems a bit tricky.

Transcript

TED provides an interactive transcript, as well as subtitles, downloads with subtitles, and so on. I watched this talk on the TED site via the "Download" button (which basically just leads to a much better-looking video).

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out!

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Live Smarter
Money Can't Buy Happiness—Unless It's Paying for a Housekeeper, That Is
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Though a few extra dollars in your pocket never feels like a bad thing, research has found that at a certain point, a bigger salary won't improve your quality of life. (Mo money, mo problems, as the wise Biggie once said.) But new research illuminates one specific way that money can buy you happiness. You just need to use it to buy yourself time, according to a new study in PNAS covered by The Washington Post.

Previously, studies have found that spending can make us happy in specific instances. Retail therapy is real, though most mall trips don't qualify. A 2016 study found that people who buy things they consider in line with their personalities were happier. Other researchers suggested that spending money on experiences makes people happier than buying new stuff.

This study, led by researchers at Harvard Business School, examined around 6270 people in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands. By surveying people about their purchases, income, satisfaction with life, and the stresses they felt due to time pressure, they discovered that people who spent money to buy themselves more free time had greater life satisfaction, and that this spending reduced the normal negative effect of time stress. Happiness comes in the form of paying other people to do boring daily chores like cleaning, cooking, and grocery shopping.

This wasn't just true for the wealthy, as The Washington Post notes: "Across a range of incomes, careers, and countries, timesaving purchases were correlated with less time-related stress and more positive feelings."

To confirm that this spending directly led to the uptick in happiness rather than emerged as a side effect of some other factor, the researchers gave 60 working adults in Vancouver two payments of $40 over the course of two weekends. On one weekend, the participants were told to spend the money on something that saved them time. On the other weekend, they were told to spend the $40 on material goods. In post-purchase phone calls, these participants reported greater happiness on the day when they made the time-saving purchase compared to when they made a material purchase.

However, being able to buy a little extra time didn't have an effect on whether people felt stressed out by having too little time. This may be because people who already felt large demands on their time were the most likely to spend money to save themselves just a bit more time in their daily tasks. A CEO might still be stressed out over lack of time, even if she has a personal chef and a housekeeper. Or it could be that humans are just never satisfied.

In any event, it seems that experiences really do buy happiness. That is, the experience of letting someone else do your chores. Want to practice #selfcare? Treat yourself to grocery delivery or a house-cleaning service. I'll be the first to admit that $300 vacuum robot purchase has brought me more happiness than any vacation I've ever been on.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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science
Scientists Think They Know What Causes Trypophobia
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Picture a boat hull covered with barnacles, a dried lotus seed pod, milk bubbles on a latte, or a honeycomb. Images of these objects are harmless—unless you're one of the millions of people suffering from trypophobia. Then they're likely to induce intense disgust, nausea, and fear, and make your skin crawl.

Coined fairly recently, the term trypophobia describes the fear of clusters of holes. The phobia isn’t recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but its visibility on the internet suggests that for many, it’s very real. Now, scientists in the UK think they've pinpointed the evolutionary mechanism behind the reaction.

Tom Kupfer of the University of Kent and An T. D. Le of the University of Essex shared their findings in the journal Cognition and Emotion. According to their research, trypophobia evolved as a way to avoid infectious disease. Thousands of years ago, if you saw a person covered in boils or a body covered in flies, a natural aversion to the sight would have helped you avoid catching whatever they had.

But being disgusted by skin riddled with pathogens or parasites alone doesn't mean you're trypophobic; after all, keeping your distance from potential infection is smart. But trypophobia seems to misplace that reaction, as the authors write: "Trypophobia may be an exaggerated and overgeneralized version of this normally adaptive response."

Lotus pod.
Lotus seed pods are a common trigger of trypophobia.

This explanation is not entirely new, but until now little research has been done into whether it's accurate. To test their hypothesis, the scientists recruited 376 self-described trypophobes from online forums, and another 304 college students who didn't claim to have the affliction. Both groups were shown two sets of images: The first depicted clusters of circle-shaped marks on animals and human body parts (the "disease-relevant cluster images"); the second showed clusters of holes on inanimate objects like bricks and flower pods ("disease-irrelevant cluster images"). While both groups reported feeling repulsed by the first collection of photographs, only the trypophobes felt the same about the pictures that had nothing to do with infection.

Another takeaway from the study is that trypophobia is more related to sensations of disgust than fear. This sets it apart from more common phobias like arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or acrophobia (fear of heights). And you don't have to be trypophobic to be disgusted by a video of Suriname toadlets being born through holes in their mother's back. We can all be grossed out by that.

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