Fire alarm buttons surrounded by painting on the wall
Fire alarm buttons surrounded by painting on the wall
(featured image: raj/Flickr CC BY)

Drills and exercises can help prepare people and organizations for the unexpected, but the choices of how to do so may involve tough trade-offs with ethical concerns

I once had the misfortune of experiencing two fire alarms in the same day. The first one was in the middle of the afternoon, at the office of my then employer in West London. As so often when this happens, the rain was pouring down, and many of us got soaked hurrying from the emergency exit to the assembly point in the car park across the road. Later, I made my way to the Isle of Wight for a client meeting the next day. …


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(featured image: Jesper Sehested — PlusLexia/Flickr CC BY)

Motivation is what allows us to survive, prosper and reproduce — but it is also behind the worst of polarization and tribalism. We should use it with care, and engage critical thinking

How come we are here? A good few billion years ago, a bunch of chemicals in the primordial soup that sloshed around a young Earth combined to form what we would, much later, call ‘life’ — organisms that somehow possessed two key capacities. They were able to reproduce, and they could distinguish what was beneficial to them from what was detrimental. …


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Rules of all kinds help us make good decisions all day long, but how does that affect our responsibility for these decisions?

Decision-making is effortful. Even if we have only two options to choose from, they often both have numerous pluses and minuses that need to be weighed up. Thankfully, we can often rely on rules that act as shortcuts and take much of that hard work away.

Many such rules we develop and adopt ourselves. After using the toilet, we don’t every time consider the upsides and downsides of washing our hands — it is a habit we mindlessly carry out. Neither do we spend a lot of time, every week, working out whether we will do the shopping on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, or — why not indeed? — on Wednesday after work. Most of us have a routine, same day, same time, that we follow pretty well. …


Two tomatoes
Two tomatoes
(Featured image: Yaffa Phillips)

Much of the niggling conflict that we encounter day in, day out, is of our own making: it is in our minds. What if we could tone it down a bit? Here is my New Year’s wish

We are all different — no two people are the same. Even “identical” twins are not actually genetically identical. That is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective, as a diverse species can better adapt to changes in the environment. It is also beneficial for us humans at a societal level: people with different skills and abilities can complement each other in effective collaboration, for example.

But we have a tendency to accentuate differences, and divide the world on that basis: me and others, us and them. Such differences can influence and even dominate our relationships. …


Person pondering a difficult decision
Person pondering a difficult decision
(featured image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay)

Not the most obvious kind of decision, but arguably the most important one

I was only about this tall when I was first told this riddle, but straight away I thought it was fascinating. My father asked me, what weighs more, a kilo (I grew up in metric) of feathers, or a kilo of lead? My intuition immediately suggested the kilo of lead would weigh more — everyone knows lead is heavier than feathers, right? Subsequently being told the right answer — and worse, having to admit it! — made it stick with me all these years.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when reading an article discussing research by Kaitlin Woolley and Peggy Liu, marketing professors at Cornell and Pittsburgh universities respectively, which looked at people’s ability to estimate the calories of the food on their plate. …


Fortune teller with a luminous crystal ball
Fortune teller with a luminous crystal ball
(featured image: Eric Minbiole CC BY 2.0)

You don’t need to be a superforecaster (nor even be making any forecasts) to benefit from two of their key skills

There are many possible reasons why we might engage in thinking. At this precise moment, you may be thinking, what on earth is his point with a sentence like this, for example. Or perhaps you are thinking about what you might be doing instead of reading this piece, and evaluating which is preferable. At other times, you may be thinking about more momentous matters, like changing jobs or a new romantic relationship, or about how best to save for your retirement.

A common characteristic across much of our thinking is that we are trying to resolve uncertainty. This is definitely the case when it concerns speculating about what might happen in the future, an activity also known as forecasting. Some people do this for a living: they tell us what the weather will be, how the economy will perform, or who will win the next election. Others do it as part of another day job in which they claim some expertise. Over the past several months, we have had many opportunities to hear forecasts from a wide range of such experts and commentators about the expected number of COVID-19 deaths, the number of hospital admissions, the utilization rate of intensive care units, or the effects on the economy or education of lockdown measures. …


Equal sign with handwritten arrows to make the well-known optical illusion of the lines of equal length
Equal sign with handwritten arrows to make the well-known optical illusion of the lines of equal length

The notion of balance is relevant in more than a few ways in our lives. But it is not always easy — or even possible — to establish it.

People have been using balance scales for a long time. The earliest evidence, discovered in Pakistan and Egypt, goes back at least 4000 years. Such devices were (and are) based on the idea that one can determine an unknown weight by balancing the scales with a known weight, producing equilibrium, derived from the Latin for equal and balance (libra).

Equilibrium everywhere

There is something peculiar about the state of equilibrium. We encounter it in the natural sciences: in mechanics, for example, an object that is not in motion is said to be in a state of equilibrium, because the forces that act upon it counteract each other (e.g. the gravitational force on a vehicle parked on a steep hill pulling it down is balanced by the friction of the tyres on the road). In chemistry, equilibrium exists when the reaction in one direction proceeds at the same rate as the reverse reaction, for example in a closed bottle of fizzy water, where the amount of CO2 exiting the liquid equals the amount that is reabsorbed. …


Christmas tree with coronaviruses as baubles
Christmas tree with coronaviruses as baubles
(featured image: based on an original photo by Maciej326)

Do we need to choose between outcomes, or between values, this Christmas?

This is the time when, traditionally, ubiquitous is the most fitting term for Slade’s Noddy Holder’s voice, yelling “It’s Christmas!” on the radio, in the shops and on the streets. True, but it won’t be a Christmas like the ones we are used to, and not only because there is rather less of Mr Holder’s dulcet tones around.

Much of Europe is currently still under some form of lockdown, and with the festive season approaching, people are anxious. …


8-segment display showing Zero
8-segment display showing Zero
(featured image: Mondisso via Pixabay)

We intuitively understand that, when we want to maximize something that is good for us, there are almost always trade-offs involved. But are we equally astute when we want to minimize something that is bad?

One of the employers I have had the pleasure to work for had a pretty developed system of benefits, that went by the rather apt name of Choices. The whole idea of offering benefits in addition to a salary is that the value to the employee is higher than the cost to the company — a true win-win. But while the cost to the employer is easy to calculate, a given benefit may not have the same value to every member of staff. …


A handshake in front of a set of horizontal blinds
A handshake in front of a set of horizontal blinds
(featured image credit: Savvas Stavrinos)

When we elect political leaders, what we really need is to be able to trust them. But how good are we at assessing their trustworthiness?

The 2020 US presidential elections will probably be remembered for longer than most of its predecessors. But leaving aside the circus that surrounds this edition, presidential elections would appear to be among the simplest of choices that a voter can face. In many countries, the final vote goes between just two people, and even where there are more candidates (as in the US), it is still almost always a two-horse race.

What are the criteria — and indeed what should be the criteria — on the basis of which we make such a choice? We often don’t give it a great deal of thought. Some might give their vote to whoever is the candidate of the party they have always voted for; others might vote on the basis of the anecdotes they heard about the hopefuls, what they have heard them say, or how they come across. If we dig a bit deeper, though, it becomes clearer what we are really looking for. Whoever wins the election will make numerous decisions throughout their tenure, decisions that will often affect us, directly or indirectly, in big ways or in small ways. …

About

Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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