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Study: A Little Forethought Can Cure the Urge Toward "Mindless Accumulation"
At the beginning of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes made a bold but logical prediction (pdf): In the long run, humanity was solving its economic problems, so that by 2030, in "progressive countries," a 15-hour work week would be the norm. Now, 17 years short of 2030, the world seems to have fulfilled Keynes' prophecy that we would be eight times better off economically than they were when he was writing. So where is the leisure he foresaw? Why are we all still working like fiends? In this paper, Christopher K. Hsee and his co-authors suggest that at least part of the explanation is psychological. Where rational economic creatures would work until they had earned enough to satisfy their needs, Homo sapiens has a propensity for "mindless accumulation": Working until you can't work any more, thereby earning way more than you need. In a series of lab experiments, the researchers write, they've isolated this tendency to "overearning" and found hints of a possible cure.
In their first experiment, 29 women and 26 men were each put in front of a computer monitor with a headset, on which pleasant piano music would play. For the next five minutes, the volunteer had a choice: Keep listening (ie, enjoy a bit of leisure time), or push a key and hear an irritating sound for a fifth of a second. For this annoying task (ie, work), they would be rewarded with a miniature Dove bar. Half the group was told it would take 20 noises to earn one chocolate; the other half got a much lower wage: 120 noises for one chocolate. In the second half of the experiment, the volunteers got their "pay" and could eat as much of it as they pleased. But, as in life, they couldn't take any chocolate with them when they left. So the volunteers had a clear incentive to "work" for as much chocolate as they could enjoy in the lab, and no reason to work for more.
Nonetheless, those in the high-wage group (one chocolate for 20 noises) "overearned" by a wide margin: As a whole, they worked enough to get nearly 11 Dove candies per person, even though they actually ate less than five per person. (There was an outlier—one hungry loon who earned 50 chocolates and ate 28 of them—which created some odd statistics but didn't alter the overall results.) Meanwhile, the low-wage people (one chocolate for 120 noises) earned only an average of two and a half Dove bars each. This was, nonetheless, more than they wanted to eat; they too left some chocolate on the table.
So, the experimenters write, they've shown that their volunteers will work earn more than they need, piling up chocolate that they'll never eat. And this tendency was much more pronounced in the "high-wage" group.
You might think people simply overestimated how much chocolate they would want to eat, and worked accordingly. But that doesn't explain the results. Firstly, Hsee et al. tolf a second group of volunteers about the procedure and asked them to estimate how much chocolate they would work for if they were to do the experiment themselves. They pegged it at around 4 chocolates. That's pretty close to what the high-earner group actually ate, suggesting that people didn't misjudge how much they would need. Secondly, if everyone in the experiment had a tendency to overestimate their desire for Dove chocolate bars, then the low-wage people should have done so as well, and worked harder.
Another possible explanation (very common on the streets of New York, where I live) is that the workers just loved their job, and couldn't get enough of it. The experimenters addressed this by asking the group to rate the experience of listening to the nasty noise versus listening the music. Idle music-listening was rated as far more pleasurable. So for this particular instance of "work," sheer joy was not the explanation.
In a second experiment, the researchers wanted to see what would happen if, while earning, people were made to think consciously about how they were piling up rewards they would never use. "One way to achieve this was to force participants to eat all of their earned chocolates," the authors write, maybe a little wistfully, "but doing so was not ethically justifiable." So the reward this time around was: jokes. During their first three minutes in front of the computer, volunteers could earn the right to read one joke by subjecting themselves to five instances of noise. In the second 3 minutes, the jokes they had earned would be displayed on the computer screen. Here, though, they were warned about the Catch-22: With the strict time limit, a person who had earned too many jokes would watch them fly by too fast to catch the punch lines.
Again, the participants (19 women and 21 men) overearned. However, half the group, which had been asked beforehand to think about how many jokes they wanted to see, overdid it a great deal less. Most of these people, in fact, reached their target number of jokes and then stopped "working." Participants were again asked how happy they were doing their tasks, and those who had earned the most jokes were least happy (presumably from the jestus interruptus they kept suffering). In fact, the paper says, "the more jokes participants earned, the less happy they were."
What this suggests, write Hsee et al., is that overearning is a strong drive. People did it even when they knew that overshooting the mark would reduce their enjoyment of their reward. On the other hand, the drive to overearn does seem susceptible to a framing effect. Some volunteers, remember, were reminded before the task about what they considered adequate for their needs. Those people engaged in less "mindless accumulation" than those who just sat down and started to work.
With that in mind, Hsee et al. set up a third experiment., with an explicit "earning cap." As they worked for their wage (this time, one Hershey's kiss for every 10 instances of noise) the volunteers were notified when they had earned 12 chocolates. Half saw a message that told them they could not earn any more reward, though they were welcome to keep irritating themselves with noises if they liked. The others were told they could keep adding to their chocolate pile by continuing the chore.
Those people kept working away, earning an average of 14 and a half Hershey's kisses per person—even though they ended up eating only six and a half each. Those who saw the "earning cap" message, though, stopped working sooner, earned less, and thus left much less uneaten chocolate on the table. Moreover, those people pronounced themselves happier.
Hsee et al. acknowledge, of course, that they've created a highly simplified model of the working life—one where love of work, desire to pass on an inheritance, competitiveness with others, social norms and a host of other elements are not present. There is also a Henrich caveat here: The experimental groups were not very big, and they were made up entirely of people from a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich Democratic) society. "Our priority," they write, "was minimalism and controllability rather than realism and external validity." Fair enough. You have to start somewhere.
Many have considered the fact that higher incomes don't correlate with greater happiness and proposed that the tendency to earn more than we need might stem from status-seeking and envy of others. Hsee et al.'s work suggests there are other drivers worth considering. The authors think that "mindless accumulation" is simply a mismatch between human nature and our current abundance. Until recently, they note, scarcity made overearning impossible, and it made sense to work for a reward as long as one was on offer.
In any event, now that more and more of us are surrounded by material comfort, it does seem a good idea to think about how we can wean ourselves off the ancient habit of working till we drop. It will likely not be easy, as Keynes foresaw: "Yet there is no country and no people," he wrote, "who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy."
Hsee, C., Zhang, J., Cai, C., & Zhang, S. (2013). Overearning Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612464785
Illustration: The gold-obsessed dragon Fafner stands guard over his treasure. Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia.
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.