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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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Does Self-Control Deplete Over the Course of the Day? Maybe Not, Says New Study
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For months now, I’ve been trying to cut out sugar from my diet. I’ve read about all the ways my sweet tooth will be the death of me, and I’ve resolved to give it up. And yet, even as I write this, my long-term goal to eat healthy is losing out to my eternal desire to eat M&Ms at my desk. Is it because it’s the end of the day, and I’ve been trying to make choices for eight hours already? Or is it something else?

A new study in PLOS One pushes back on the popular theory known as "ego depletion," which hypothesizes that self-control is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day, much like energy levels. Instead, researchers from the University of Toronto and the learning technology company Cerego found that people's self-control depletes when it comes to doing one task for a long period of time, but that self-control fatigue isn't a factor when you're switching tasks. In other words, it's hard to say no to the box of cookies all day long, but saying no to the box of cookies won't impede other acts of self-control, like your ability to focus on your homework instead of turning on the TV.

The study used data from Cerego, which publishes online study materials, examining the study behaviors of two groups of college students using the Cerego system as part of semester-long psychology courses. The researchers looked at data from two groups of users, one group of 8700 students and one of almost 8800, focusing on how long they worked during each session and how well they performed at the memory tests within the curriculum.

If self-control really is a finite resource, it should be depleted by the end of the day, after people presumably have spent many hours resisting their first impulses in one way or another. But the researchers found that this wasn't true. Overall, students didn't do any better if they used the program earlier in the morning. Instead, performances peaked around 2 p.m., and people logged in to use the software more and more as the day went on, suggesting that the motivation to learn doesn't fall off at night (though that may also be because that's when college students do their homework in general).

However, mental resources did seem to be drained by doing the same task for a long period of time. The researchers found that after a certain point, students' performance dropped off, peaking at about 28 minutes of work. They made about 5 percent more mistakes 50 minutes into the session compared to that peak.

When it comes to the idea that we exhaust our store of self-control, the authors write, "the notion that this fatigue is completely fluid, and that it emerges after minutes of self-control, is under considerable doubt."

The notion of ego depletion comes from a 1998 study in which researchers asked participants to hang out in a room full of fresh-baked cookies, telling them to eat only from a bowl of radishes, leaving the cookies untouched. Then, those volunteers worked on an impossible puzzle. Volunteers who had spent time avoiding the delicious pull of cookies gave up on the mind-boggling task an average of 11 minutes earlier than a group of volunteers who were brought into the same room and allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. (Lucky them.)

Since then, the idea has taken off, leading to hundreds of subsequent studies and even influencing the habits of people like Barack Obama, who told Vanity Fair in 2011 that he only wore blue or gray suits in order to cut down on the non-vital decisions he had to make throughout the day.

This current study isn't the first to challenge the theory’s veracity, though. In 2016, a 2000-person replication study by some of the same authors (with scientists in 23 different labs) pushed back on the theory of ego depletion, finding that short spurts of self-control didn't have any effect on subsequent tasks. This study just adds to the evidence against the well-established idea.

So it's looking more and more like ego depletion isn't a good excuse for my afternoon vending-machine habit. Perhaps the true secret to excellent self-control is this: Just be a raven.

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Think Other People Have More Friends Than You? You’re Probably Wrong
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If you've ever felt bad about how small your social circle seems compared to everyone else's, fear not. A new study finds that most people overestimate how large the social groups of people around them are, according to Business Insider. In other words, people think others are way more popular than they actually are.

The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by researchers at the University of British Columbia, explored the prevalence of this misconception among first-year college students. Because freshmen are just entering a new social environment, many are leaving their longstanding social circles behind for the larger, unfamiliar territory of college life. They might not have made very many friends yet, but it appears that most believe that their peers have.

The two experiments surveyed a total of almost 1500 students combined. In the first, almost 1100 second-semester freshmen were asked about the number of close friends and acquaintances they had made at school—distinguished by whether or not they confided personal problems in them or not—then to estimate how many friends the other first-year students had made in the same time period. Almost half the students thought that others had more close friends at school than they did, while just 31 percent estimated that they had more close friends at school than others did. The same went for the number of acquaintances they had. The students reported having an average of 3.6 close friends of their own, but thought that others had an average of 4.2 close friends.

In the second experiment, the researchers followed almost 390 students, divided into two groups, for two years, asking them the same questions as in the first experiment. They also asked what percentage of their total time they spent socializing with friends they made prior to coming to college as well as what percentage of time they spent socializing with other students they met at UBC. They estimated how much time others spent on the same activities, then completed questionnaires on their well-being, life-satisfaction, loneliness, and sense of belonging.

Again, most of the students thought that other people had more friends than they did, and estimated that their peers spent more time socializing with their new college friends than they themselves did. This misperception extended even to their specific close friends and acquaintances, who they believed spent more time socializing with their other new friends than they did. However, the more time the participant spent with said friends and acquaintances, the smaller the gap between perception and reality were. Importantly, people who believed that everyone else was more popular than they were reported lower levels of well-being and a lower sense of belonging.

This misreading of others' experiences may in part be due to the fact that a lot of social activities are very visible, whereas hanging out by yourself is, by nature, not. Eating with a bunch of people in the dining hall is a public activity that others can see, whereas few people see you studying alone in your room. "This could make it difficult for students to imagine the prevalence of their peers' solitary activities and therefore to over-rely on peers' publicly visible social activities to estimate their peers' social connectedness," the researchers write.

The study only examined the perceptions of young people who find themselves in a totally new social environment, but it's easy to imagine that the same misperception could exist outside of college, too. It's not the only misconception we tend to have about friendship, after all. In 2016, a study revealed a depressing stat: As many as half of your friendships might be one-sided, meaning you consider someone your friend, but they don't consider you theirs.

It turns out, when it comes to our social lives, most of us have no idea what's going on.

[h/t Business Insider]

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