Hang onto your wallet – or lower your expectations

We have learned one more truth about ourselves: when we think an object is worth more, we enjoy it more. When told a bottle of wine is worth $90, researchers have found our brain tells us it’s more enjoyable than the same bottle of wine priced at $10. As if we don’t already have enough inflation to worry about – $3.10 gallons of gas, $4.00 gallons of milk, and Starbucks coffee costing more – we have to worry about the damage to the pocketbook we’re self-inflicting. Now, it may not mean we’re likely to actually go out and pay more for a bottle of wine – afterall, I’m as big a cheapskate as they come – but we’re more likely to feel better about the Night Train we’ve just bought on sale…marked down from $90 to a paltry lucky $13.

We are conditioned to believe that if something costs more, it must be better. To the point that in this California Institute of Technology and Stanford Business School study, we find that our brains actually change to accommodate this belief, by sending more blood and oxygen to the medial orbitofrontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with reward.

The study itself purports to provide evidence that marketing actions can influence the consumers’ not only expectations of quality, but our actual experience of enjoyment.

In a way, it makes sense and it is something from which marketers have made a living for as long as there have been marketers – if a person believes they’re getting a deal, they’re more likely to spring to buy a product. For instance, consumers as a whole do not understand the varying qualities of jewlery and when we see an advertisement for a sale – “with prices slashed” from/to – we think we’re getting a good deal. What we fail to notice is the caveat at the end/bottom of the advertisement: “original price may not have resulted in actual sales.” We’re told that the item is worth $X, and that the sale price is now some percentage reduced from that value, but we have no real way of knowing if it actually could sell at the “original” price.

This goes one step farther. This study asserts that marketing can actually change our physiological experience of a product, or in the argot of the profession, it can actually change the intrinsic quality of the product. Meaning that, at least with wine, if we’re told that it is an expensive bottle, we enjoy the wine – “enjoy” as operationally defined by brain activity in the pleasure center of the brain – to a greater extent.

That’s some heavy stuff. Watch out for more studies on this – the more we find out, the more likely we are to be paying more for the perception that we’re getting products of quality.

The study entitled “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America January 14, 2008.

SOURCES/REFERENCE:

http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html?tag=nefd.pop

http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/1324.php

http://www.pnas.org/cgi/gca?gca=0706929105v1&sendit=Get+All+Checked+Abstract(s)

 

Afterward: I wrote this in March 2008, so I don’t know if any of the links still work, but I figure it was worth reposting. For instance, gas has come down some in the last 10 years…this caused me to remember what it was like leading up to the economic crash. I’ve found a few things from 2008 and am culling through them to see what’s relevant to post.

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Untitled: The Contentment of Existence

I started this post in 2012.  I’ve come back to it a few times in the intervening six years, to the point that I’m not sure what caused me to start it, where I was planning to go with it, what my intention was behind it. It had no title – it sat as a “draft” known only as ‘Untitled’ as it sat. Writing is an interesting thing: sometimes it takes ideas years to percolate and come to their own meaning. Ironic, really, that it takes so much time and energy to process these thoughts on being present. Sometimes it’s not as ironic as all that: sometimes its the serendipity of finding relevant ideas in a seemingly unrelated book.  This entry is really the result of persistence, coming back off and on over a period of time – enough so that when the right inspiration came along, I knew how to apply it.

And thus it begins with a question: What makes one happy?  I don’t mean a funny joke, or laughing with old friends.  I don’t mean pleasurable. I mean generally happy.  The kind of happiness that at any one moment of clear presence, you realize you’re smiling or content.  The happiness you feel when you’re alone with your thoughts, no one else around, no media to distract, and you realize you’re happy.

I spend a lot of time alone in my head – to the point that a lot of people think I’m aloof, until they get to know that is an outside wrapper and that I can be a warm, engaging and caring person.  Introverts are often like that: larger groups, where the potential for the spotlight of attention being focused on you at any given time can give you the heebie jeebies, but smaller groups of 1:1 interaction on meaningful, deep interesting topics are energizing.  I think I’ve gotten better about that over the years, but it’s still difficult for me to break the ice.  I’d rather mull ideas over, and get lost in my thoughts.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that they are being mindful because they are focusing diligently on problems. But if they are doing so while subconsciously bound up with their worries and expectations, with no awareness that they can’t see clearly or that others may know more, they aren’t open at all.”

― Ed CatmullCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

In that alone alone time where I do get lost in thought they’re not overly deep thoughts, not pondering the nature of the universe or heavy, complicated concepts. Its actually super easy to just live in that place.  But that’s the issue; its easy. There is no achievement, there is no improvement.

Ed Catmull citing research in his book Creativity, Inc., says that “mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.”  It’s that proclivity to dive inside myself that keeps me from being mindful, and perhaps content. Happy.

Catmull also visits the idea that meditation could actually lessen physical pain by helping people to be in the moment: by being in the moment, you shut off your monkey brain from overthinking and mulling over what the perception of pain should be.  Now, there is a fundamental disconnect between “thinking” and “feeling;” the two don’t necessarily share a vocabulary, and feelings are fundamentally different than rational thoughts, but I do try to think about what I’m feeling.  I spend time thinking about what’s causing me to feel a certain way – it seems almost disconnected, doesn’t it? Like a scientist observing a subject.  And that’s where I’ve been going wrong – I just need to experience, not think about it. Just. Be. In. The. Moment.

While it does seem disconnected, it is important, because its not even really about discovering the why of the emotion, but rather realizing that it’s being felt.  Being present. Looking around, taking myself off autopilot, and observing. When you’re so inclined as to spend that much time in your own head, it becomes very easy to be oblivious to the simplest things going on around you.

When you’ve owned a pair of shoes for a while, you notice a wear pattern on the soles. Yet, it’s not likely that you’ve ever consciously thought about how your feet hit the ground each time as you walk.  Often the greatest release of stress can be just taking that deep breath, coming out from yourself, and looking around; taking in the air, the sights, realizing what you’re doing. Feeling how those feet hit the ground. And you realize, you’re happy.  Content in your existence.

And so there it is: 6 years of percolating these words and the idea eventually reveals itself to be presence.  Not feeling.Not thinking. Not introversion vs. extroversion. Just being present in the moment.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 19

New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft was part of a program initiated in 2001 and was launched on January 19, 2006 to begin its approach and fly by  of the Pluto system some nine years later on January 15, 2015.  On July 14, 2015 it began it’s exploration of the dwarf planet, and this past week, 469 days hence on October 25, 2016 its final images of the July 14 exploration was received by NASA.

Some 50-Million gigabits of data from New Horizons have now traveled the 3.1-Billion miles back to Earth. Consider that: 50-Million giabits of data is the equivalent of 6.25-Million Gigabytes.  Your couple year old notebook computer may have a 500-GB harddrive.

Consider the possibilities: For the first time in Human history, we’re seeing up close pictures of a terrestrial body more 3-Billion miles away from us.  On that July day in 2015, something built on and launched from our little planet Earth soared 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet Pluto taking pictures.  The distance between Boston and New Delhi, India is a little less than 7200 miles.  New Horizons was about the radius of our planet away from Pluto.

Why Pluto?

Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.

We’ve learned Pluto is far more complex an environment than we’d imagined.  Pluto and Charon combine into a “binary system,” and while relatively common in the galaxy, we’d never explored one.  We have more information that suggests is more water ice on Pluto than we had thought and we know that the red cap at the north pole of Charon is trapped methane gas.

When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as this strange, far flung rock of a planet, perhaps not unlike the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth.  My boyhood imagination was captured by space and the thoughts of space travel.  That there may be other worlds on which to put our feet down.  We are still years, decades away perhaps, from landing a man on Mars – a grave disappointment for a middle aged man growing up with thoughts of intergalactic travel – but it’s so incredible to me to be able to see photographs of a planet so far away.  It makes it so concrete and real that in this age of almost instantaneous communication that it could take over a year to send images from one place to another.

NASA describes this data as a treasure-trove.  I submit its far greater than that; I submit that it is the cause of generations of people to look toward the sky and dream of what still further treasures lie beyond that 3.1-Billion miles waiting to be seen by us.

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 6

George Washington Carver

When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

images-of-lynne-carverHistory remembers this man for his work with peanuts, but the backstory behind his breakthrough work is even more inspirational.  How he came to be in position to help those less fortunate, the rural poor and in the process perhaps saved the economy of the south. His family divided by slavery – we don’t even know his actual birth date or exactly who his father was; indeed “Carver” is the family name of the slaveholders who owned him and his family.

He was kidnapped along with his mother and sister from the plantation where the family were slaves, but only he was found and returned.  He was a sickly child and not very strong, as such the slaveholders kept him in the farmhouse and taught him to read, eventually sending him to school and later moving off the farm to go to high school.

Upon graduating from high school, and determined to engage a college education he applied for and was denied entrance to school owing to his race.  He worked odd jobs – farmhand, railroad work – to save money for that education, eventually enrolling at the first black student at Simpson College in Iowa where he was encouraged to enroll at what is now Iowa State University to study botany. Six years after starting his collegiate journey, he earned his Bachelor’s degree, and two years later a Masters’ Degree.

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgewash106292.html

An inspirational story in and of itself, but there’s more.

He gave up his faculty position and its trappings, to go to work for the first African American college in the country, the Tuskegee Institute, to teach former slaves and where he developed work on crop rotation, rotating cotton and peanuts.  When peanut inventories grew too high and prices dropped, he developed 300 different products for their use and demand soared.

An uncommon man, at the time of his death, he left his entire life savings to the Tuskegee Institute.  He spent his life in dedication to others leveraging the education he had worked so hard to achieve.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver

http://www.biography.com/people/george-washington-carver-9240299

http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_fame/george_w_carver.aspx

The Night Sky

This image of the “Pleiades Cluster”, or “Seven Sisters” as it is sometimes known, is one of the brightest open clusters to exist near our solar system, as well as one of the few clusters that can be seen with the naked eye.

Here’s what I appreciate about the night sky:  On a clear night, there’s a clear picture.  And here’s what it says about life to me.

From a distance, all these bodies are about the same size with only slight deviations – some are brighter, some are slightly more tinted in color, but they’re all about the same size to the human eye.  It’s our proximity to these objects that skew our perception: from our vantage point the moon – a body 27% the size of our own planet – is roughly the same size as our sun, an object 100 times the diameter of our own planet.  Jupiter, a planet 2.5 times larger than the rest of the planets, looks like a shiny dot in the sky, and about the same size as Mars.   On a really clear night, you may be able to see one arm of the Milky Way galaxy across the sky…but only one arm.

We see the stars organized as patters in the sky – Orion, the Great Bear – but at the end of the day, their alignment in these shapes are created by our view from our place in the universe.

Our proximity, or lack there of, creates a bias and an inability to see magnitude in the big picture.  We see patterns where none exist, we misjudge size.  When we’re so deeply involved in a situation, we overestimate the importance; when we’re invested in a situation, we create patterns where they may or may not exist.   When we look at the sky, we see millions of similar individuals in the sky when in reality they represent a diversity of size, color, depth, and magnitude.  Our sun is the most important star in the sky, it heats our planet and makes life possible; in reality its a mid-range yellow star with no particular features.  Its our dependence on this object that makes it important.

Yet, from a distance, we only see similarities.  Only barely detectable to the eye are the differences between Red Giants and White Dwarfs.  Betelgeuse has a detectable red hue to it if you’re paying attention.  Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, but how many of us could pick it out?  All those distinctions get lost in our distances.

How many times do we let distractions close to us cloud us from the larger picture – nearby lights or a cloudy, overcast sky that keeps us from seeing the stars at night?  Not unlike our every day life.

I appreciate the night sky.  It gives me a little perspective, perhaps because of the utter lack of proportion it shows us.  You can look out over millions of years, millions of light-year distances and see only similarities in the aggregate with the odd-outlier standing out among the many.   I don’t wonder about other life or about the vagueries of the universe, I’m far more simple than that.  The night sky puts much of human interaction into perspective as a function of our lack of perspective in the night sky.

Randomness vs. Luck

Randomness. It’s the concept that allows for the possibility “000000” will come up in a random number generator, or that your older iPod would play the same song twice in a row  (Apple has since modified the “shuffle” feature so it’s actually a little LESS random). It’s the 1 in 195,249,054 chance your PowerBall ticket will have all 5-numbers plus the powerball. In the entirety of baseball history, only one record has been set that couldn’t be predicted by randomness — Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, this according to Leonard Mlodinow in The Drunkards Walk.

In Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, it becomes clear that intelligence is not the major driving force behind success, and in Outliers Malcolm Gladwell makes clear that what makes an outlier is positioning oneself within one’s time to take advantage of opportunities. In retrospect, success appears guaranteed. In reality, it’s all in the positioning to best take advantage of opportunities — in essence to place yourself in position to be that 1 in 195,249,054, to make the most of your randomly chosen opportunity.

We cannot control randomness. We can position ourselves to take advantage of those random opportunities which present themselves to take us to where we want to go. I was a college undergraduate and an underclassman at that, struggling to put together a full time schedule when I enrolled in a 300-level course without having taken the prerequisite. On the first day of class, I arrived with my add/drop slip in hand, hoping that I could get signed into a course I had to take and get signed out of this course. From the first moments of that course, I was captivated by the professor and his enthusiasm for the course material. I not only put the add/drop slip away, I decided that I was going to take this course regardless of obstacles because it was interesting as hell, and thus set forth the direction of my undergraduate education, graduate education, and my career path.

My entire adult life was shaped by my scheduling this class in which I was presumably over my head, but by which I was completely captivated. But for my need to build a full time course load for the semester, I may still be wondering what I want to do with my life some 20-odd years later.

I was attending this school because I didn’t get into my first choice, and since I was paying my own way through school, I needed a state college. I applied to this school because my friend, whom I met because we both happened to be working in the same shopping mall while I was in high school, was going there.

Because I had done well in my undergraduate courses, and because I happened to stumble upon a recruitment brochure for a graduate program hanging in the psychology department offices, I applied to a school with which none of my professors was acquainted and was granted what was tantamount to a free ride. A completely random chain of events, and without any one of these myriad things happening, my life would certainly have been different.

There’s no good luck or bad luck. Things happen more or less on a predictable basis. Sooner or later, someone will buy that 1 in 195,249,054 lottery ticket. It’s not luck, it’s probability no matter how remote that event will happen, and the person to whom it happens is completely random. And guess what? The odds that it will happen to you specifically are even longer than that it will happen to someone in general.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because they’re random events, and sooner or later it has to happen to someone. There’s only one way to weigh the odds more heavily in your favor and that is to best position yourself to take advantage of opportunities. You cannot be the 1 in 195,249,954 if you have not even bought a ticket.