Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for January 2014

Finding Your Happy, Creative Place

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It seems obvious that individuals with a happy work environment will be more creative and proactive, but there’s a school of thought among some managers and executives that insists keeping workers off balance makes them better workers. What does the research show?

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer cite substantial research indicating that a positive inner work life enhances creativity and productivity. In 1987, Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki published their article “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their experiment applied the traditional creative thinking task of presenting a subject with a box of thumbtacks and a candle, then asking the subject to suspend the candle over the table so no wax dripped onto its surface. Prior to setting out the task, the subjects were either shown a five-minute video clip from a comedy, five minutes of a film on concentration camps, or given a neutral task such as exercise or watching a math film. The experiment revealed that participants who watched the comedy were significantly more likely to find the problem’s solution.

Amabile, Kramer, and other authors criticize studies showing that stress results in improved performance by pointing out that any positive effects are short-lived, the experimental conditions addressed specific rather than generalized tasks, and that focus on external conditions hampers performance. Amabile and Kramer conducted a substantial study of mental affect on creativity by asking employees at several companies to record daily journal entries detailing one event that stood out each day. Based on their results, they concluded:

We even found a surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day — and, to some extent, the day after that — even taking into account his moods on those later days. This may be due to what psychologists call an incubation effect. (p. 52)

In the face of this research, why do many managers feel the need to stress their employees through constant reorganizations or manipulative reward schemes? In my opinion, part of it comes down to control. Managers feel like they have to prove their worth by driving their reports to higher productivity than they would have achieved without the manager’s input. Other managers just like pushing people around. Finally, American industry still follows, at least in part, the scientific management philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorization entailed breaking processes into component parts that workers could accomplish through rote memorization and adherence to established procedure. Perhaps these principles could work on an assembly line (though the Ford Motor Company experienced massive worker turnover until they modified their practices), but creative and knowledge worker tasks can’t be broken down in the same way.

None of us can be happy all the time, nor should we be. We’ll get frustrated, be unable to complete the tasks we’re assigned without substantial effort, and take many wrong turns as we try to advance the state of the art in our field. We need to be resilient and stand up to these perfectly normal pressures, but we shouldn’t have to suffer through needless stress imposed by management.

One of Amabile and Kramer’s main points is that workers do better when there’s a sense of progress. Even the little victories matter. In one sense, the little victories matter a lot. We’re all working toward a common goal, but it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude unless you feel like you’re moving toward that goal. Just as improv scenes move forward one line at a time, so do your work projects. Keep that momentum up, be ready to help each other, and try to stay positive.

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Spend a Five or Break a Twenty? The Denomination Effect

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I’m sure many of us understand the denomination effect on a visceral level. If you’ve ever been in a store, saw something you wanted, but hesitated to buy it because you’d have to pull out a big bill, you’ve experienced this effect. Why did you hesitate? Because you knew that breaking that $20, $50 or $100 bill made it that much easier to spend your change.

Perhaps that’s why prices near a dollar amount, particularly $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, and $99.99 are so attractive to the consumer’s eye. You’re trading one physical item (a printed piece of paper) for another (perhaps a flash drive) and getting a tiny bit of money back. I wonder how much of the attractiveness of prices just below a currency denomination depends on the fact that you’re getting some change back as opposed to the first number being one less (e.g., $19.99 versus $20.00). I bet the two phenomena are intertwined in some interesting psychological ways.

You also see the denomination effect at work in gambling, but the effect works differently there depending on the game and situation. Knowledgeable poker players experience the reverse effect, becoming less likely to get involved in hands when they have fewer chips in their stack. They hesitate to invest in a hand because, when you are low on funds, the relative value of each chip goes up. Other players can use this hesitancy to their advantage and bet big to drive the small stacks out of a pot, but the small stacks can make a modest bet to induce a bluff raise from a big stack, but the big stacks can raise and hope the small stacks will think they’ve fallen into their trap, but…

You get the idea. Poker’s fun, but bring aspirin.

Where the Illusion of Psychic Powers Might Come From

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Humans build cognitive models by taking in the world and learning how to interpret the input. Children learn language inductively by listening to their parents and other speakers, gradually building up their comprehension and productivity. That strategy never fades — we all take in information about our surroundings and use it to make judgments.

Of course, the world is a busy place, so our brains avoid taxing our cognitive resources by learning what is safe to ignore. The vast majority of sensory inputs never reach our conscious minds, but our brains process environmental inputs and use them to guide our thoughts. This result isn’t surprising on an anecdotal level, given that we all have insights and “feelings” that we can’t pin to a specific input. What’s interesting is how Piers D. L. Howe and Margaret E. Webb from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne tested this “knowing without knowing” process.

Howe and Webb presented subjects with 1.5-second glimpses of one photograph, followed by a one second blank gap, and then another 1.5-second look at another photograph of the same person. Some pairs of the photos were identical, but some had subtle differences, such as hair position, clothing change, and so on. Subjects were asked if the photos were identical or different. Even though the differences were subtle and exposure relatively quick, subjects were able to detect that the photos were different even though they were often unable to articulate the difference.

The authors conclude that this “knowing without knowing” process could explain the “sixth sense” phenomenon, where individuals seem to gain information without specific input. Their article, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, provides significant evidence in favor of the theory that our subconscious processes information in a way that lets us make decisions about situations and individuals without understanding why we had those thoughts.

This result is exciting, but also a bit sobering. Security professionals have long known that their instincts serve them well. If something “just don’t look right” (JDLR), even if they can’t articulate why, they should pay close attention. Situations change, though, particularly in social settings so we have to be on guard against mental models that bias us against groups or situations where no threat exists. It’s a tough balance, but it’s all part of being human.

Test what you know, but avoid congruence bias

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A few posts ago I discussed confirmation bias, where individuals interpret everything they experience as reinforcing their existing beliefs. It’s not surprising that humans fall prey to this trap. We have to make sense of our surroundings, so we develop mental models to do so. They’re our models, based on our mental, so it’s no surprise we think highly of them.

No model of the world can capture all of its complexity. We can model industrial processes at a certain level, but we can’t get all the way down to the interactions of individual atoms. Fortunately, we don’t have to to generate accurate depictions of reality. As statistician George E. P. Box noted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Many humans realize they will move through life more effectively by testing and updating their mental models, but you need to test your model correctly. If you test your mental models and other hypotheses through direct testing, rather than testing possible alternative models, you are experiencing congruence bias. You’re testing your model, which is great, but you’re not entertaining other ways of approaching the problem, which is not so great. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists work within a paradigm, which is the dominant framework for creating, testing, and determining hypotheses at a given time. When experimental results aren’t as expected, scientists can either work to shore up the existing paradigm or create a new one.

My wife, Virginia Belt, is a director and formerly taught acting at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She emphasizes the need for actors to try different tactics to get what they want. Think of the young child who tries everything he can think of to have you buy him a treat at the grocery store or the cat that really, really (really) wants a piece of sausage from your pizza. You can take the same approach to life. If you find your model isn’t working well any more, such as after a promotion at work, joining a new improv group or entering into a new relationship, try different tactics to see what does work. Ginny always exhorts her students to make positive choices, to focus on what they want rather than what they don’t want. If you call Domino’s and say you don’t want anchovies, you’ll either get no pizza because you haven’t given them enough information or get a pizza that costs $50 because it has every other available topping on it.

As anyone who has ever tried anything new well knows, individuals who break away from the pack meet a lot of resistance. Having the strength to break out of congruence bias at a personal level is tough — having the strength to do it in the face of a tenure board is even tougher. Let’s leave the paradigmatic fights for the professionals and focus on our own world views for a while. We’ll be better off in the end.

Review of Memes in Digital Culture, by Limor Shifman (MIT Press)

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In addition to my other ventures, I’m the editor and lead reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. Some of the books I cover related directly to my work as an improviser and speaker — Memes in Digital Culture is just such a work. This review originally appeared on January 5, 2014.

Title: Memes in Digital Culture

Author: Limor Shifman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52543-5

Length: 200

Price: $13.95

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

I’m a fan of the Essential Knowledge Series from MIT Press. These small-format books provide useful information on a variety of digital culture topics, including Information and the Modern Corporation and Intellectual Property Strategy, which I have also reviewed. In Memes in Digital Culture, author Limor Shifman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem develops a framework for analyzing memes in the networked age.

Memes as Entities

An early meme familiar to Americans and other western audiences is Kilroy Was Here, attributed to James J. Kilroy, a Massachussetts shipyard inspector. More recent examples are the Pepper Spraying Cop, Scumbag Steve, and Socially Awkward Penguin. Richard Dawkins introduced memes in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. In that work, Dawkins argued that memes are small units of culture transmitted amongst a population, like genes. Dawkins’s framework posits that memes have three main characteristics: longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity. Shifman points out that the Internet enhances all three of those aspects, allowing exact digital copies of memes to spread quickly and to stay around longer in the Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, and hard drives of users.

Dawkins created his original theory of memes before networking technologies became commonplace. Shifman extends his work by defining an Internet meme as:

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.

Many commentators use the terms meme and viral interchangeably, but Shifman argues they’re two very different things. Her definition of memes emphasizes the transformational aspect of creation and sharing, such as adding a new caption to a common image. Korean rapper PSY’s viral video “Gangnam Style”, which was viewed more than one billion times on YouTube, was immensely popular but not, at least at first, a meme. Later take-offs on the theme, such as an homage to the wealthy former U.S. presidential candidate called “Romney Style”, marked the transition from viral video to meme.

Analyzing Memes

Shifman argues that memes can be analyzed in three ways: content, form, and stance; and interpreted through economic, social, and cultural/aesthetic lenses. Content, form, and stance capture the creative elements of a meme, including the contributor’s attitude toward the subject matter and subtext inherent in the creation. For example, the “Leave Britney Alone” video creator puts forward, through subtext, the idea that it’s OK to be a gay male wearing a wig and eyeliner. It’s also possible to break memes down into genres, including Reaction Photoshops (Photoshop-edited images are sometimes called “shoops”), Photo Fads, Flash Mobs, Recut Trailers, Misheard Lyrics, Bad Dubbing, and LOL Cats.

Chapter 8 focuses on memes in the political realm, particularly involving citizen participation. In the U.S., that trend included the Occupy Wall Street movement and the “I am the 99%” percent meme. Shifman and her colleagues also investigated memes in France, China, Israel, and Egypt. Because many regimes monitor or censor the internet in general and social media in particular, activists use code words to obscure their discussions and intentions. Memes also bring the difference between what Erving Goffman called the frontstage and backstage political venues into sharper relief. The frontstage represents the public face of a politician or campaign, while the backstage represents the venues where the real work gets done.

Final Thoughts

Like the other Essential Knowledge Series books I’ve had the pleasure to review, Dr. Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture provides a solid overview on an interesting topic. I can easily see academics adopting her text as required reading for digital media analysis courses and executives reading it to gain insights into meme culture.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

When You’re “Due” — The Gambler’s Fallacy

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I travel to Las Vegas once or twice a year, both to play poker (where I convince myself I have an advantage) and to dabble in other games (where I definitely don’t). Since 1993, when I started playing while on the East Coast, I’ve seen thousands of players succumb to the insidious gambler’s fallacy.

Let’s say you’re playing roulette and notice, as posted on the so very helpful display by the wheel, that five red numbers have come up in a row. Is black due? What about green (0/00)? The answer is neither. Roulette wheels are well-balanced and the little obstacles spread around the wheel, called canoes in casino parlance,  make outcomes random enough to be considered independent trials. If red numbers come up five times in a row, the next number will be red 18/38 of the time, black 18/38 of the time, and green 2/38 of the time. Ironically, it’s our human urge to discover patterns that makes the gambler’s fallacy work. The wheel has no memory, but we do.

The bottom line is that when you play roulette, the proportion of red, black, and green numbers will tend toward the target ratios over millions of spins and the weighted payoffs will ensure the house earns its profit over the long run. But what about games like poker? Poker is a skill game with a healthy dose of luck thrown in, so trials aren’t truly independent. Inferior players beat better players over the short term, but only because of luck. But what happens when equal players face off?

It’s hard to find players of the same skill level at a poker table, but I tested the theory by replicating an experiment described by poker author Lou Krieger. Like Lou, I set up ten identical players in Wilson Software’s Turbo Texas Hold’em simulation mode and let them play hundreds of millions of hands against each other. Six of the ten players were just above or below breaking even, but there were two big winners and two big losers. Remember that each player followed an identical strategy — the only factor controlling their fate was the luck of the draw.

As human beings trying to extract a living from an indifferent universe, we must realize that the odds are not always in our favor and that we will go through bad streaks we can’t seem to reverse. At these times it pays to strengthen your base by learning new skills or practicing old ones, reinforcing friendships, reaching out to others for help, and offering assistance where you can. Doing these things doesn’t constitute “good karma” or “putting things out into the universe”, both dubious concepts. What you are doing is improving the chances you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunities that you and your contacts discover.