How to win a negotiation
Getting what you want often requires choosing the right strategy.
CHRIS VOSS: Everybody has cards they're not showing in a negotiation. Everybody.
DAYMOND JOHN: Understanding that when you're negotiating it's what's in it for the other party as well and it's not just self-serving.
DANIEL H PINK: The key here is that we tend to think that persuasion or motivation is something that one person does to another.
KEVIN ZOLLMAN: In such a situation oftentimes the best strategy is very counterintuitive because it involves flipping a coin, rolling a dice or doing something random.
DAN SHAPIRO: So the classic approach to negotiation is positional bargaining. In positional bargaining I have a position, you have a position and we haggle over those positions. Now, the rules to positional bargaining are very clear. You start with an extreme demand, but not so extreme that the other side thinks that you're crazy or bluffing. You concede stubbornly, and you demonstrate a greater willingness than the other side to walk away from the negotiation table.
FREDRIK EKLUND: It's very important to set a floor and a ceiling so you know where to move. Because if you don't you can be manipulated and you can lose yourself in the emotions. If you're a good negotiator you will obviously try at least to be completely disconnected emotionally from the deal and negotiation itself, although you will play emotional. So if you're not upset you can play upset. But none of that matters unless you don't have a floor and a ceiling. So you need to know if you go under the floor you need to walk out or end the negotiation.
KEVIN ZOLLMAN: One of the things that game theorists have found is that in negotiation, especially in negotiations where we're debating how to divide up some resource—classic example in game theory is dividing up a pie but it could be anything like money or some time with a toy or anything where we have to decide how to divide it up. Game theorists have discovered a couple of central principles that make a big difference to who does better in those negotiations. One of the critical things is how patient you are. How willing you are to stay and continue to negotiate. So if I come in in a rush to a car dealership and I say I need a car right now, everyone knows that the car dealer is going to try and take advantage of the fact that you need a car right now and say sorry, we can't give you a discount. But if you come into a car dealership and you say I don't need a car anytime soon. If you give me a good deal today I'll take it, but if you don't I'll leave. Maybe I'll come back tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe a month later. Then you'll get a better deal.
SHAPIRO: However, this probably isn't the best agreement that you could have come to. All this is doing is arguing over one single factor, a number. And that's the problem of positional bargaining is that I might have a lot of other interests at stake, but none of them are getting shared within this very strict form of positional bargaining. There's another form of negotiation that at the Harvard Negotiation Project some of my colleagues have developed we call it interest based negotiation. The idea here is let's not argue over positions. Let's argue over underlying interests.
SALLIE KRAWCHECK: Never have one ask and take no for an answer. That if you're told no on the raise or even if you're told yes, come in with 12 other requests. I want to take a coding class that the company pays for. I want to have a stint in marketing. I want to work overseas for a period of time. I want to be mentored by XYZ. I want to work on this big project. I want to, I want to, I want to. And if by number 20, typically your boss is going to say yes to something that can turn into professional advancement or money down the road.
DAYMOND JOHN: Understanding that when you're negotiating is what's in it for the other party as well and it's not just self-serving. A lot of times people just don't ask the right questions. Instead they're just stating what they want instead of saying how can this situation be better. What do you need for this situation or what are your obstacles.
SHAPIRO: Why do you want the car? Well, I want the car because I have three kids, three boys. I want a safe car. I don't really care about the sunroof—I don't need to look that cool. But I want a car that's not that expensive. I want one that's energy efficient. These are all of my interests. Now, the car dealer has his or her own interests. If I ask you right now on camera what day do you think I bought my most recent car. Literally what day, you should know. It was December 31 right at the end of the year because I knew one of the interests of the car dealer in my area was they needed to get these cars off the lot for the next year's cars. They were more likely to go lower because they had other interests at stake. So interest based negotiation says don't just focus on the positions what you say you want. Focus on the underlying interests. And this is just as true in contemporary society, whether it's a business example, two people arguing over a contract. Don't just focus on the positions, focus on the underlying interests.
CHRIS VOSS: You know successful negotiation is not about getting to yes. It's about mastering no and understanding what the path to an agreement is. We get hammered so much day in and day out with people trying to trap us with yes, trying to corner us, trying to lead us places by getting us to say yes that we get defensive instantly when someone tries to get us to say yes. So you've got to get out of the getting to yes mindset and instead understand that yes is commitment and we're always worried about what we've let ourselves in for when we make a commitment. There are three kinds of yeses: there's commitment, confirmation, and counterfeit. People are most used to giving the counterfeit yes because they've been trapped by the confirmation yes so many times. So the way you master no is understanding what really happens when somebody says no. When yes is commitment, no is protection. If you say no and you've just protected yourself you're actually a little more open to hearing what the other side has to say because you're not worried about what you've committed yourself to. So you can take most questions that are designed to get yes and simply turn them into the same question where the answer is no and it gets you to the same place. If a boss gives an employee an impossible task and the employee says 'Well, you want me to be successful, don't you?' Well, that's pushing for a yes. The flip side question of that instead is, 'Do you want me to fail?' It's stunning what people are comfortable saying no to.
So, first of all understanding that you can use a no to make somebody feel protected and a little more open-minded to hearing what you have to say. Now, the second move after that is what do you want them to say next? What you really want them to say is 'That's right.' You want to be able to summarize how they feel about things and what the circumstances are so that they feel that you've got it. So much so that you look at you in the eye and say 'That's right.' And that's what we say at any given point of time when we see something that we know is completely true and that we're in complete agreement. We say 'That's right!' almost as if we're so totally behind it, it may have even have been a partial epiphany. We're so behind it. We just heard something that we feel is the indisputable truth and in many cases a really good 'That's right' summarized in a way that the other person was actually blind to. They didn't know that those forces were driving them or those passions. But when you say it to them it creates an epiphany on some level where you pointed something out to them that's true that they didn't even realize. They're showing us and telling us that they feel empathy from us. And any time you feel empathy from somebody else, you feel bonded to them. You want to collaborate with them. You want to do whatever you can for them. And that's a great way to find out what kind of latitude somebody has in a deal. And everybody's got latitude someplace.
VOSS: How you use your voice is really important and it's really driven by context more than anything else. And your tone of voice will immediately begin to impact somebody's mood and then immediately how their brain functions. There's actually scientific data out there now that shows us that our brains will work up to 31 percent more effectively if we're in a good mood. So if I smile at you and you see it or you can hear a smile in someone's voice. If I automatically smile at you and you can hear that I like you I will actually be able to reach into your brain, flip the positive switch, put you in a better mood, there are mirror neurons in our brain that we have no control over. They automatically respond. And if I intentionally pout you in a good mood your brain will be working more effectively and that already begins to increase the chances that you're going to collaborate with me. You'll be smarter and you'll like me more at the same time.
JOHN: Also, body language. Over 65 percent of communication is body language. Only seven percent is what you say. The other is how you say it. When you're at a table communicating with somebody do you notice them putting a lot of obstacles in front of you to gather space and push you away, or are they lifting their hair over their ears when they're writing because they're more interested in what you're saying.
VOSS: Now upward and downward inflection. Downward inflection is often used to say this is the way it is. There's no other way. And I will say it exactly like that. If there's a term in a contract that there's no movement on and I want you to know it and feel it without me having to say 'There's no movement on this!' Maybe you want to yell at somebody. That's ineffective because that triggers a different part of the brain and makes people angry and they want to fight. And I've done this in contract negotiations. I've said things like, 'We don't do work for hire.' Just like that. That let's the other side know there's no movement, whatsoever. I also may need to put you in a more collaborative frame of mind and if I want to ask you a question I'll say something like, 'it seems like this is important to you?' And I'll inflect up. It's more driven by context and I can use an upward inflection to encourage you and smile while I'm questioning you. And that will make you feel less attacked by being questioned because people are made to feel a little bit defensive when they're questioned anyway. So if I know if I have to question you, if I want you to think about a different option, then I'm going to be as encouraging as possible while I may be very assertive at the same time.
DANIEL H. PINK: So let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose that you're a parent and you have a daughter, say a teenage daughter whose room is an absolute mess. It just looks like a bomb went off in there and you want your daughter to clean her room. You're trying to sell her on the idea of cleaning her room. What do you do? Well, you could try to bribe her and that might work in the sort term. You could try to threaten her. That might work in the short term. You could try to exhort her. You can try to tell her about the meaning of clean rooms. But there's actually a technique from the counseling literature, really crystallized by a fellow named Mike Pantalon of Yale University, called motivational interviewing. And what you can do more effectively is ask two irrational questions. So, let's say that you have a daughter named Maria, and Maria has a messy room, and you want Maria to clean her room. The two questions you could ask Maria are this: 'Maria, on a scale of one to ten, one meaning I'm not ready at all, ten meaning I'm ready to do it right now. How ready are you, Maria, to clean your room?' Now Maria's room is a pigsty so she's not going to give you a ten or a nine or even a five. Maybe she'll give you a two. So she says 'Dad, I'm a two.' Well, here's where the second question comes in and it's a really interesting counterintuitive question. You say to Maria, 'Okay Maria you're a two. Why didn't you pick a lower number?'
Now our instincts as parents is to say, as a parent of three kids I have this instinct very strongly. If my kid were to say to me I'm a two I would say what, 'Why are you a two? You should be a nine!' But you say 'Why didn't you pick a lower number, Maria?' So here's what happens. Maria has to explain why she isn't a one. And so she says, 'Well, you know, I am 15 and I probably should get my act together. If I had my room cleaner I'd be able to get to school on time faster and maybe see my friends a little bit more. You know, you and mom never know where anything is anyway, so I'm kind of wasting my time asking you to help me.' What happens? With that second question, why didn't you pick a lower number, Maria begins articulating her own reasons for doing something. And this is really axiomatic in sales and persuasion. When people have their own reasons for doing something, not yours, their own reasons for doing something, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to the behavior more strongly.
Now suppose Maria says, 'Dad, on a scale of one to ten I'm a one.' Okay, that makes things a little more complicated, but it's actually really, really important to understand this. If you say to Maria – if Maria says, 'Dad, I'm a one,' here's what you say to Maria: 'Maria, what can we do to make you a two?' And what often that does is this. Maria will say, 'Well maybe if you and mom help me for 15 minutes to get this started. Maybe if you maybe not set the table and take out the trash tonight that would free up some time for me.' Because usually when people are a one it's often not because they're purely obstinate. It's because there's some kind of environmental obstacle in front of them. And if someone says they're a one, find out what that obstacle is, try to make them a two and that might give you some more momentum. The example I just gave had to do with parenting, but you can use this more universally. Now you can't whip it out at every single persuasive encounter but you can use it to persuade your boss. You can use it maybe to persuade a reluctant prospect in an actual sales encounter. You can use it with someone – your neighbor who's resisting moving his garbage cans or something like that. The key here, and again you've got to go back to first principles here. The key here is that we tend to think that persuasion or motivation is something that one person does to another, and what the social science tells us very clearly is that it's really something that people do for themselves. And your job as a persuader, as a motivator is to reset the context and surface people's own reasons for doing something. Because it works a lot better.
VOSS: The secret to gaining the upper hand in negotiations is giving the other side the illusion of control. And the illusion of control is typically best given with either questions that begin with the words what or how. Both what and how should be the form of nearly any question where you're trying to gather information. And it's actually one of the ways we say no. The first and best way to say no to anyone is: 'How am I supposed to do that?' Now, the other side actually has no idea as to the number of things you've done with them at the same time. You've conveyed to them you have a problem. It's something that we also refer to as forced empathy, because one of the reasons why we exercise tactical empathy is because we want the other side to see us fairly. We want them to see our position. We want them to see the issues we have. We want them to see the constraints that we have. And when you say to somebody 'How am I supposed to do that,' you make them take a look at your situation before they respond. And they think about it in a number of different ways. And a number of different people I've coached through negotiations who have felt completely helpless. They felt completely taken hostage. In one instance a woman thought she was taken hostage to the future and she just wasn't getting paid. They called her up to give her more work and we taught her to say, trained her, counseled her to say how am I supposed to do that.
They thought about it for a while and they said you're right, you can't. Now notice that response is not word for word directly responsive to her question. What they responded to was they felt like she said to them I can't do this anymore. I've reached my limit. And it's a way to establish a limit in a way that doesn't back the other side into a corner. You really want to be able to let out no a little bit at a time, and the first way to start letting out no as an answer is how am I supposed to do that. Now ultimately with that question we all imagine that the other side is going to say 'Because I said so' or 'Because you have to.' That's actually where you ultimately want to be with that question. That's a great way to find out whether or not you've gotten everything you could on that particular term. Because the other side's most angry response is 'Because you have to.' It's not them walking away. It's not them terminating the deal. It's not them giving you any more of an ultimatum. It's them saying no, I've got no more room to give with out the negotiations breaking off. So given the other side the illusion of control while signaling limits, it's a great way to stay in the conversation and find out that you're not leaving anything on the table. So the more you let the other side feel like they're in control, the more amenable they are to collaboration. You really don't want people to feel out of control.
VOSS: The F word in negotiations is fair. Fair is the F bomb, and when you begin to look for it, it's stunning. In how many negotiations somebody drops the F bomb in the negotiation? And when somebody says we just want what's fair, That's actually a really bad sign. One of two things is going on. Now, the cutthroat negotiators know how much I can punch your buttons if I say I've given you a fair offer. And that will immediately put you on the defensive and make you worry about whether or not you're being fair and most people have an instinctive feeling about fair price, fair market. Fair is just like this incredibly overused term in negotiations. I just want what's fair, what's the fair market price. So if I say I've given you a fair offer and I'm accusing you of being unfair I've immediately knocked you back on your heels. It's a way for me to gain an advantage on you, if I'm that kind of a negotiator. The flip side of it is, maybe I've been assertive enough in the negotiations and I haven't been using enough tactical empathy that the other person feels like I'm taking, taking, taking from them, and they'll respond with 'I just want what's fair.' That may be someone genuinely telling me very indirectly that they feel I've been far too aggressive. And if they feel I've been aggressive, and if they feel treated unfairly, one of two things is going to happen. They're either going to walk away from a great deal, or they're going to make implementation painful. And when implementation of a negotiation is painful, when they drag their feet, when they don't make deadlines, when they don't deliver the product quality they're supposed to deliver, when they're not as thorough and paying as much attention to detail because they didn't feel it was a fair deal, they destroy your profit. So you have to really keep an eye out for the F bomb in negotiations. And when somebody else feels they've been treated unfairly they're probably going to hurt you over it.
ZOLLMAN: When one is confronted with a situation that's truly zero sum where one party is going to win and the other party is going to lose, the situation is very complicated and sometimes difficult to analyze. Game theory spent much of its early days analyzing zero sum games and trying to figure out what's the best strategy. It's a little complicated because it depends critically on how sophisticated you think the other party is. If they're very, very, very smart, the chances that you're going to out-think them are not very high. In such a situation, oftentimes the best strategy is very counterintuitive because it involves flipping a coin or rolling a dice or doing something random. Professional poker players know this, and they oftentimes advocate in poker strategy books that one should occasionally do something completely counterintuitive in order to keep your opponents off guard. And, in fact, game theory has shown that this is good, solid mathematically well founded advice. That oftentimes what you want to do is engage in a kind of random strategy – game theorists call this a mixed strategy – in order to make sure that your opponent can't get the leg up on you. The nice thing about these random strategies is that they ensure that your opponent can never out-think you. So even if you think your opponent is a little smarter than you, or a little bit more sophisticated than you, or has a little bit more information than you do, the fact that you're being random to a certain extent means that they can't out-think you. Now how do you figure out how to be random? I'm not saying just flip a coin all the time, or whatever. What game theorists have figured out is that in zero sum games, the best strategy to pursue when you're against a sophisticated opponent is to adopt the strategy which minimizes your maximum loss. This is sometimes called the mini-max strategy.
So the idea is you think what's the worst case scenario for me. What could my opponent do that would make me worse off? And then you figure out what's the best strategy against that. So you're minimizing your maximum loss. Game theorists prove that if you use this way of thinking, minimizing your maximum loss, you ensure that no matter how sophisticated your opponent is you've guarded against the worst case scenario and not only that, but in zero sum games you've done the best you can possibly do. That's not true in games that aren't zero sum, so one has to be very careful about employing this strategy because if you're mistaken and you're not in a zero sum interaction, you can end up ruining it for everybody. But if you're truly in a zero sum interaction, this is one of the strategies that you could use.
VOSS: A summary is designed to let the other side know that you really understand what's going on now and, if nothing else, at least you understand their position. There are a lot of negotiators that really will give in on a deal because being understood is more important than getting what they want. In particular, the assertive negotiator, being understood is actually more important to them than actually making the deal. So, everybody wants to be understood anyway. Let people know you completely understand where they're coming from, and that's the design of a summary. Summarizing the facts and how they feel about the facts. And actually if you can summarize their feelings about the facts that are driving them but that they're blind to, it will make a big difference to them because then they feel really understood. That empathy connection is there. What you want to do is put people in a position where they feel connected enough to you that they're willing to collaborate with you. They're willing to show you the things that they were scared to tell you about before. You know the cards that everybody holds in a negotiation? That if you could just see those cards, you might be able to negotiate a completely different deal? Well, that's where this entire approach is really going—everybody has cards they're not showing in a negotiation. Everybody. And if you could get the other side to show you those cards, we call them black swans, those little things that make all the difference. If you can get them to show you the black swans, to reveal those black swans, then you can probably make a better deal than you ever had in mind.
- There are many variables in every negotiation, which means there is no silver bullet or magic phrase you can use to win every single time. On top of that, the idea of "winning" changes depending on the situation. The key to success is being able to identify the type of negotiation and use a strategy that gets you what you want.
- "Successful negotiation is not about getting to yes," says former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. "It's about mastering no and understanding what the path to an agreement is."
- In this video, experts including Voss, Shark Tank investor Daymond John, author and real estate broker Fredrik Eklund, game theorist Kevin Zollman, Harvard International Negotiation Program director Dan Shapiro, and others detail the different types of negotiations and share tips on how to navigate them effectively so that both sides feel like they've arrived at a good spot, somewhere near the center. You can also learn how to outsmart an opponent in a zero-sum situation.
- 5 Minute Drill: How to Negotiate Like a Pro - Big Think ›
- How to establish financial freedom and negotiate a better salary ... ›
- How to Negotiate Your Way Out of Conflict - Big Think ›
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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.
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
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A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.