How to think smarter about failure
There is no success without failure, but the fear of the latter is what's really keeping you from achieving your goals.
MICHELLE THALLER: I often get questions from young students, and they say, well, how did you become a success? Or another great question these days is how did you overcome failure? And the funny thing is I found myself really kind of at a loss because the very concepts of success and failure I think are words that never really meant anything. And actually, I strongly suspect they have a lot to do with privilege. That if you can make yourself in the model of a research professor of 100 years ago, that's defined as a success. And if you do something different it's defined as a failure. There's never been any time in my life where, even after having received an award, or having been on a television show, I sat back and said, boy, I really feel like a success. It was always wrapped up in feelings of I should've done something differently, I should've had a different career path. There's never been a time where I felt like a success. And at the same time the idea that you ever really fail at something. There are plenty of times that, I very nearly failed differential equations in calculus, there were things that I was not very good at. But I eventually got them on, say, the third or fourth try. And the problem was just staying around and telling yourself that I really want to learn this, and I'm just not gonna leave until I do. There wasn't any really true failure either. It was always kind of twisted up with things I was proud of, that I was actually working through and trying to learn. So this idea that at some point in your life you're going to stop and feel like a success. Yes, I am successful now. I get very, very nervous when people ask me about that, about how did you become a success. I wanna sit them down and tell them all the things I screwed up, and all the things I did wrong, and all the reasons I'm not a success. And at the same time, when anybody calls me a failure, it's like, I wanna sit you down and explain why what I'm doing is actually getting your money and your funding for the rest of science. I'm not a failure either.
Everything in life is gonna be a flow between those two things. Everything is gonna be a jumble of success and failure. Your personal life, your professional life, the way you feel about yourself. And it's a strange model we give young people. Try to be a success, try to overcome failure. All I can do is just kind of breathe and just realize that at no point in my life am I gonna separate those two.
ARI SHAFFIR: So I was maybe a year or two years into comedy. Went home to this job, came back, and was over-- I haven't thought about this in a while—I was overcome by fright. I couldn't get back on stage. I couldn't do it. I would drive from my apartment in West LA, 30 minutes towards The Comedy Store. Find parking, get out of my car, walk to The Comedy Store. Because you get an employee spot every week, and I was an employee, so you get your three minutes, and it was the highlight of your week. And I would park, go in, turn around, get back into my car, and go home without getting on stage. I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it. I didn't know what to do. So what I did was I intentionally, I mean, it was, that was gonna be the end for me. If I can't go on stage, I can't be a comic, you know? So what I did was, I told myself like do something where it's going to go bad, where you know that ahead of time. Because like, what's the worst that can happen? You know, that kind of thing. So I went to The Comedy Store. I said, I'm not gonna say a word, in my head, I'm like, I'm not gonna say anything for my whole time I'm on stage. And I'm just gonna see what happens. So I went in, I put my tape recorder down, I like press record. And then I was like . And then I just kept looking around, and just three minutes of silence. Like this can't go well. So like, it's not gonna affect me if it doesn't 'cause I'm trying to tank it. But then I could get on stage, I could feel what it's like in front of the crowd. I actually got a couple laughs. Just stuff like, you know, shrugs and stuff, and how ridiculous it was. And then after that I was able to get back on stage again. I was like, that's the worst. I can handle the worst. So now let me go.
KAREN PALMER: So I'm very much inspired by parkour and I am still am a freerunner but I was a really hardcore freerunner training like six, seven days a week for two years at one point like a decade ago, 12 years ago in my life. And I basically didn't realize at the time but me and the people that I trained with were basically completely rewiring our brain. We were learning to understand our own personal triggers for fear and then navigate through there. So say that we were jumping on a ledge that if we fell we might break both our legs. And the distance was quite manageable so what we'd do is we'd start on the ground. Then we'd go up a little bit higher, go up a little big higher. The same distance but as you go higher it's not the distance, it's the consequences that scare you.
So we learned to master our own fear and develop strategies for moving through fear. And often in life when we feel fear we kind of get nervous and we run from it. But really when you feel fear it's something new and probably that's a direction not all the time but often that we should be moving toward to embrace something new. I felt so empowered that it inspired me to change my life like leave my boyfriend, leave my job, change my flatmate, change my business partner, everything. Because I was like well if I can train and I'll jump on this wall and I didn't break my legs what's the worst that can happen if I split out with my boyfriend and I don't think he's the one, right. I basically reprogrammed my brain. And then from that I was able to change my whole life and be sitting here with you today, right.
The kind of key is with parkour is that we kind of say well, you've got to do something three times. And that is kind of like quite a common thing when you're trying to master something. Once is like, you can do it twice and three times now you've mastered it. And that's because neurologically it kind of takes you three times for your neurons to fire in your brain and to create those new pathways. Then it's like sealed.
ETHAN HAWKE: If there was one thing that I've learned that I feel, whatever good fortune is, has put me in the position of realizing this is that without risking looking like an absolute fool, you cannot do anything original, unexpected, anything that comes from your heart. You have to shed that fear of judgment. And that means you may fall on your ass. And one of the wonderful things is that's our job. As a member of the artistic community your job isn't to succeed. Your job is to be one of many people throwing...You're the wind at the door. You're the wave. One wave is going to crash through and it may be you, or it may be somebody else. But there's a lot of waves that are gonna add up to somebody breaking through. I mean, do you think people really...Look, when Linklater and I first were going around trying to pitch the idea of Boyhood. I got an idea, right? We're going to make a little short film about a little boy for 12 years. We're going to cut it together, it'll be one movie. It'll be all about childhood, it'll be amazing. So wait, it's coming out in 13 years? And wait, does the little boy sign a contract? You can't sign a contract for more than seven years. Yeah, but if the boy is having a good time...Yeah, so I put my money in now, and if the boy is having a good time, I get it back in 13 years? Yeah. Nice. What else do you have? But luckily the guy went with me and yeah, we could have fallen on our ass, but you have to try. You have to try.
STEVE CASE: Great breakthroughs in society usually have required multiple tries, multiple experiments, multiple pivots. And that's the whole idea of getting in there, getting some experience, and then taking a step back and figuring out how you move forward. The most classic case of this was the whole idea that John F. Kennedy started about getting somebody into space, landing somebody on the moon. When he said that, he called for the country to rally around that, it almost was impossible for people to imagine that happening. The technology just wasn't there, but people tried things. Many times failed. This they thought would work, it didn't work. They kept adjusting, kept at it. And eventually they were successful in landing somebody on the moon and bringing them back home safely. So that's a perfect example of many different experiments. People see this in science, they know that in order to have a breakthrough in science, you have to try a lot of things. Most things will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure, that just means that idea failed. And what can you learn from that idea and then move forward.
TIM FERRISS: In Silicon Valley, there's the fail fast, fail forward, the fetishizing of failure. And it's become very trendy. I think it's extremely misleading and misinterpreted and misapplied in many cases. So whether you ask, say Peter Thiel who views failure as always being a tragedy. There is no exception and it is not some aesthetic imperative or learning imperative necessarily. Or you talk to, say, Mark Engstrom, for instance, who I interviewed for Tim Ferriss Show, but also for Tools of Titans. And he says, "When I was getting started," I'm paraphrasing here, but well, "When I was getting started, we didn't have a fancy word for it. We just called it a fuck-up. We didn't call it a pivot." I think that it would be better to say iterate fast and iterate forward. I certainly feel like doing your homework coming out, and maybe the Silicon Valley ethos should start looking into the military more to say, I think it's David Hackworth. I think I'm getting that right. Who said, "If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn't prepare properly." Or something along those lines, I mean it is entirely plausible and possible to come out and just smash your competition from second one of round one. And I think that even if you do end up failing and then correcting course, that's a good aspiration to have. Not to come out really shoddy and handicapped from the get go expecting to pivot 27 times. Then if you look at my portfolio, for instance I have about 70 companies I've invested in, I was a pre-seed advisor to Uber and Uber's business model hasn't really changed. It's been the same for a very long time. If you look at Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby. He came up with the business model in about five minutes of going to a used record store and asking them how they did it. And it remained the same effectively for 10 years, 15 years until he sold it for whatever it was, $24 million. So you don't have to fail. It's not a prerequisite for having a successful company or a successful life. You just have to learn. So I think learning and iterating are two words that are going to be more valuable than failure. But when failure does slap you in the face when fortune serves you up a tidal wave of some type or quicksand being able to adapt to that and not emotionally overreact I think is certainly important but you shouldn't strive for failure.
ALISA COHN: The best way to debrief any project, any bad thing that happened, any problem, is just to go down the tiers of why. And so you start with, okay, so let's assume that the project that you were working on is late. Let's assume it's a product release and that it is now definitely not gonna make its deadline, and it's probably three or six months late. First of all, it's important just to create an environment where people can talk freely and not feel blamed, because we're just debriefing to understand what happened. So it's about understanding the structure of it, not looking to finger point. But the first question is why? So why was the release late? Well, engineering for example, didn't deliver the code on time. Why didn't engineering deliver the code on time? Because they weren't given the specs early enough. Why weren't they given the specs early enough? Because product didn't get to them early enough. Why didn't product get to them early enough? Because product didn't understand from marketing the requirements early enough. So if you keep going down those and you understand why did marketing not get them early enough, it's because they didn't have a good plan to get the customer data they needed to. Then you can take a look at what went wrong here. Is it about, we need to tighten up our process? Which is very often true, especially with startups. Is it that we need to have a better timeframe for deliverables? Which is often very true when you're working on complicated multi-domain projects. Or, did we just forecast incorrectly? Did we not take into account all the multiple steps that leads to the product release? And that's often very true as well. And maybe, why didn't we take into account the multiple steps? Because there wasn't one person in charge. Great. So going forward, we know that we need to all take into account the multiple steps, and declare one person the owner of the project overall. And let's try those two interventions, those two changes. And that's gonna help us be more, have more excellence in operations.
CASE: Sometimes you do have to call it quits. So sometimes things are just not working. But my own experience is sometimes just when you think that, finally something breaks through, and the sky opens up, and there's new possibilities. We came very close to not making it with AOL. There was many times where it didn't quite work. Where you thought something would work, it didn't. We have to lay people off. We're about to run out of money. We had a partnership that fell apart. There were some near death experiences on that road. I used to joke that AOL was a 10 year in the making overnight success. By the time it finally got successful, everybody said, you came out of nowhere. No we didn't, we were at it for a decade. And thankfully we didn't give up, we didn't quit, we stuck with it. So sometimes you have to just say, it's not working, you have to walk away. But my experience is if you really believed in that idea early on, you really were passionate about that idea, you still think it could get traction. For some reason, it just hasn't broken through. Take a fresh look at what partnerships you can establish that help accelerate the growth. What new policies perhaps can be put in place to accelerate the new growth. Don't give up on it. Now, there's a great Nelson Mandela quote: "It always seems impossible until it happens."
- What does it mean to be a failure? Failing is typically seen as moving in the opposite direction of a specific goal, when in reality, most achievements in history were made possible by a series of non-successes.
- "The very concepts of success and failure are words that never really meant anything," says astronomer Michelle Thaller. She and others argue that successes and failures are inextricably linked, and that how we define them for ourselves is what matters.
- As Ethan Hawke, multidisciplinary filmmaker Karen Palmer, entrepreneurs Steve Case and Tim Ferriss, executive coach Alisa Cohn, and others explain, finding personal success means taking risks, being willing to fail, and recognizing when—and why—things are not working. "Most things will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure," Steve Case says. "That just means that idea failed. And what can you learn from that idea and then move forward."
- Failure Is Never Giving Yourself the Opportunity to Fail - Big Think ›
- The '85% Rule': Why a dose of failure optimizes learning - Big Think ›
- You need to fail. Here's why. - 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.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
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.