The Robin Hood morality test

The Sheriff of Nottingham captured Little John and Robin Hood and imprisoned them in his maximum-security dungeon. Maid Marion begged the Sheriff for their release, pleading her love for Robin. The Sheriff agreed to release them only if Maid Marion spent the night with him. To this she agreed. The next morning the Sheriff released his prisoners. Robin at once demanded that Marion tell him how she persuaded the Sheriff to let them go free. Marion confessed the truth, and was bewildered when Robin abused her, called her a slut, and said that he never wanted to see her again. At this Little John defended her, inviting her to leave Sherwood with him and promising lifelong devotion. She accepted and they rode away together.

How would you rank the four people in terms of their morality and honesty? This is the Robin Hood morality test, written by a Sydney marriage expert. Submit your answer and then see the distribution of answers from others, as well as an analysis of what your ranking says about you.

Why no one understands you

Most of the time, Halvorson says, people don’t realize they are not coming across the way they think they are. “If I ask you,” Halvorson told me, “about how you see yourself—what traits you would say describe you—and I ask someone who knows you well to list your traits, the correlation between what you say and what your friend says will be somewhere between 0.2 and 0.5. There’s a big gap between how other people see us and how we see ourselves.”
This gap arises, as Halvorson explains in her book, from some quirks of human psychology. First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion”—the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.
Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.

From this piece at the Atlantic, an overview of concepts from Heidi Grant Halverson's No One Understands You and What to Do About It. A useful catalog of psychological concepts like the primacy effect that are in play, and just good general advice not just for the home but the workplace.

We live in our own heads, it's not surprising we overestimate our own emotional transparency. In film school, for one class on directing actors, all of us directors spent time trying to emote into a mirror (you can also videotape yourself and watch yourself live to really amp up your own discomfort). It was a useful exercise in realizing just how inscrutable most people's faces can be, and also how hard it is to be a great actor. The concept of bitchy resting face is humorous but is just one example of how much baseline information asymmetry exists in day to day human relations.

The easiest solution? Overcompensate on communicating your feelings, and do so explicitly and specifically. 

“If you want to solve the problem of perception,” Halverson says, “it’s much more practical for you to decide to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to go into phase two of perception. It’s not realistic to expect people to go to that effort. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to weigh every possible motivation of another person? Plus, you can’t control what’s going on inside of another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.”
People who are easy to judge—people who send clear signals to others, as Halvorson suggests people do—are, researchers have found, ultimately happier and more satisfied with their relationships, careers, and lives than those who are more difficult to read. It’s easy to understand why: Feeling understood is a basic human need. When people satisfy that need, they feel more at peace with themselves and with the people around them, who see them closer to how they see themselves.

When introverts should drink coffee

In his book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, psychologist Brian Little argues that introverts shouldn't drink coffee before an important meeting, or anything like it.

Why does coffee seem to have this effect on introverts?
This isn't my own research, but it's based on the theory of extraversion by Hans Eysenck and research by William Revelle of Northwestern University. It's the idea that introverts and extraverts differ in the level of neocortical arousal in the brain — in other words, how alert or responsive you are to your environment. According to this theory, introverts are over the optimal level — that is, more easily stimulated — and extraverts under the optimal level. 

It's more complex than that, but this is a useful model because it allows us to make some predictions. This suggests that performance will be compromised for introverts if they are exposed to stimulating situations, or if they ingest a stimulant (such as caffeine),which pushes them even further away from the optimal level. 

So when should introverts have their coffee, then?
Later in the day would be better; at any rate, they should try not to have caffeine right before something like an important meeting, as I say in the book.

Optimal robot personality

They gave them distinct personalities. It was an experiment: would humans react to the robots differently based on how they carried themselves? They tried out two different personalities on each robot. One version was extraverted; the robot would speak loudly and quickly, use more animated hand gestures, and start conversations instead of waiting to be spoken to. The other personality was more reserved, speaking much more slowly and quietly, moving around less, and letting the user initiate communication.

What the researchers found, as they described in a recently published paper, was a striking difference between the two. When it came to the nurse robot, people preferred and trusted it more when its personality was outgoing and assertive. What people wanted in a security guard was exactly the opposite: the livelier, extraverted version clearly rubbed people the wrong way. Not only were they less confident in its abilities, and dubious that it would keep them away from danger, they simply liked it less overall.


What researchers are finding is that it’s not enough for a machine to have an agreeable personality—it needs the right personality. A robot designed to serve as a motivational exercise coach, for instance, might benefit from being more intense than a teacher-robot that plays chess with kids. A museum tour guide robot might need to be less indulgent than a personal assistant robot that’s supposed to help out around the house.

A growing body of research is starting to reveal what works and what doesn’t. And although building truly human-like robots will probably remain technologically impossible for a long time to come, researchers say that imbuing machines with personalities we can understand doesn’t require them to be “human-like” at all. To hear them describe the future is to imagine a world—one coming soon—in which we interact and even form long-term relationships with socially gifted devices that are designed to communicate with us on our terms. And what the ideal machine personalities turn out to be may expose needs and prejudices that we’re not even aware we have.

More here. How many of our personality preferences for robots will we inherit from the human analogues we're most familiar with? We may wish for a robot personal trainer to be tough, forceful, while we may prefer a calm, almost flat affect from our robot therapist.

Regardless, I'm excited to see the first generation of robots or AI's with personality roll out to the world. It feels like one of the most likely vectors of delight in user experience design when it comes to AI.

Impact of landscape on time horizon of your thinking

To reach that conclusion Dr van Vugt and his team randomly assigned 47 participants either to look at three city photographs, or three country photographs, for two minutes each. After that participants were asked to pick between €100 ($135) now or a larger sum, which grew in €10 increments up to €170, in 90 days’ time. Those beholding natural landscapes made the switch to deferred gratification at a sum, known as the indifference point, that was 10% below those who scanned cityscapes. The same was true when another 43 volunteers were asked either to walk in an actual forest outside Amsterdam or in the city's commercial area of Zuidas.


It turns out our environment, the landscape we're in, may affect the time horizon of our decision-making. It's still not clear why.

What, then, is it about brooks and meadows that propels thoughts of the beyond? Dr van Vugt speculates that competition—for jobs, attractive partners and large bank accounts—is concentrated within cities, rendering them unpredictable. Unpredictability may in turn shunt people onto the fast lane. He admits, however, that the study does not determine whether cities spur impulsive behaviour, or whether the countryside inspires patience. Or, indeed, whether the effect holds for different types of non-urban locale. Sublime deserts or the Arctic tundra may be (as Coleridge himself would be the first to aver). But their inhospitability makes them possibly more unpredictable for their human inhabitants even than bustling Amsterdam.


Whatever the reason, for long-term planning, it may indeed pay to get away from it all and escape into nature.

Fundamental attribution error and tech mercenaries

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior—where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration. This discrepancy between attributions for one's own behavior and for that of others is known as the actor–observer bias.

From Wikipedia. I've always heard fundamental attribution error used to describe people. But more and more, I believe it's applicable to companies as well.

That's not to say it isn't also still a problem when applied to people in technology. For example, a common belief is that tech workers in Silicon Valley are more mercenary than in other tech markets like Seattle or New York.

When I moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in mid 2011, I was curious to experience this supposedly venal culture firsthand.

Having worked in all three of those markets over many years now (and also having been at Hulu for three and a half years in Los Angeles), I'm not so sure the people are more mercenary in Silicon Valley. Much of the short tenures in the Bay Area may be explainable by the environment rather than some intrinsic ruthlessness on the part of the people living in the area.

For one thing, the number of tech companies in Silicon Valley just dwarfs that in any of those other tech markets. Sure, fewer people left Amazon than I would have expected , but if you wanted to stay in Seattle, where else would you go? To Microsoft? Real Networks?

The number of startups in the Bay Area also exceeds that of any other tech market by a huge margin. Since startups have such a high failure rate, inevitably it drags down job tenures.

If you control for those two factors, would the Bay Area still rate as having a more mercenary culture? Someone with access to more data would seem to be able to answer this question quite easily (maybe LinkedIn has enough data to run such an analysis). My hypothesis, just based on my personal experience, is that the Bay Area's supposedly mercenary culture is just a technology version of the fundamental attribution error.

If you're operating outside of the Bay Area and feeling fairly secure with your workforce, though, beware. The world is changing, and the fight is coming to your doorstep. For one thing, LinkedIn and other such services have made it easier and easier for other companies all over the place to reach your employees with enticing offers. If you don't think every one of your employees is receiving multiple offers a week, if not per day, from recruiters and headhunters and LinkedIn, you may be living in the 90's.

Think you're safe because your employees don't want to relocate? More and more companies are going to where the people are, opening satellite offices in any market with a good base of talent. Shoppers in many states may not be the only ones lamenting the fact that they now must pay sales tax on Amazon purchases. Competitors are also feeling the hit as Amazon now has free reign to open offices in those states and staff them with abandon. There are three major Amazon offices in the Bay Area already, and they're recruiting aggressively. But the same thing is happening in Seattle, Amazon's home court; Facebook and Google, among others, have opened offices there. 

This is not to mention the fact that some of the best employees can choose to work from wherever they want. It's rare, but not as much as it once was. Almost every company I've worked at in my career now has some employees who work by themselves out of some random place. They're good enough, and the demand for their skills so far outstrips supply, that they spend most of their work year in a remote destination of their choice, maybe a home office in their hometown in North Dakota.

All of this is good news for employees, who now have more options as the liquidity and efficiency of the labor market surges. For employers, it's difficult to say whether it's a positive or negative thing. If you treat it as a zero-sum game versus employees, it must by definition be a negative if employees are gaining.

Within the tech sector, though, one might hypothesize that companies that can offer more cash benefit from being able to compete for employees anywhere. Startups who need compete on the uncertain benefits of stock options more than cash now must contend with the tech giants, if even if the startups locate in more remote markets. However, this might just filter out those who who are risk averse and who'd flee at the first sign of adversity.

I began this post as an examination of the myth of the Bay Area mercenary culture, but the larger theme may really be the reduction of labor arbitrage in the tech industry. By no means has it disappeared entirely, I am not advising you start your next startup in Kansas City. If Jeff Bezos were starting in today's environment, though, it's not a slam dunk that he'd still choose Seattle.

Playing games on yourself

AT a meeting last Tuesday, I told my colleagues that I would finish this column — which is about deadlines — by noon on Thursday. I spent part of Tuesday afternoon searching the word “deadlines” on Google, but didn’t make much progress. By late afternoon, I felt a tiny knot of fear in my stomach. What if I let my co-workers down? So I wrote something silly just to get started. This paragraph.

On the motivating power of deadlines, however artificial they might be.

People respond well to deadlines because meeting them provides a distinct feeling of having achieved something within a time frame.

Amazing how you can fool yourself, even though you know you're doing so. This might seem irrational, but many self-help books seem to posit a notion of multiple selves, often adhering to that popular dichotomy that places an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. Succeeding in life, then, becomes a game in which you outwit the devil, the bad self.

The psychological poverty trap

Shafir and Mullainathan tested the intelligence of sugarcane growers in India during two different periods: after selling the harvest, when they enjoy relative prosperity, and before the harvest, when times are tightest. The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. The study concluded that poverty generates a psychology of its own.

Most of us judge poor people, viewing them at worst as lazy, at best as suffering from deficient financial behavior. We've gotten used to thinking that being poor is their fault: If they were smarter or more industrious they surely would have overcome their poverty.

Shafir, however, claims that the real culprit isn't lack of ability but problems created by poverty. "These problems are distracting and cause mistakes," he told Markerweek in an interview.

"When you're poor you're surrounded by bad decisions of people around you," he says. "You're so concerned about the present that you can't begin thinking about the future, and that's the big irony: People with the greatest need to think about the future don't have the leisure or emotional capacity to do so. The very essence of poverty complicates decisions and makes immediate needs so urgent that you start making wrong choices. These mistakes aren't any different from anyone else's, but they occur more frequently due to the element of stress, and their implications are much greater."

More of this insight into the psychological impact of poverty, all interesting, from poverty expert Eldar Shafir.

Clearly, fundamental attribution error when it comes to the poor is dangerous, especially as it comes to crafting policy to combat it. I hope a better understanding of the psychological and decision-making impact of poverty will lead to greater empathy on the part of those more fortunate.

Studies like this also point to some of the potential advantages of behavioral economics over classical economics, built around the concept of rational actors. Put someone in a situation of comfort and wealth, and they'll tend to behave more rationally than someone in poverty who has a staggering array of challenges weighing on them.

Previously posted here, also related: the persistence of poverty.