Category: Psychology

Signaling: The Language Peacocks, Gazelles, and Humans All Speak

Signaling and countersignaling are hidden methods of communicating with each other.

We do it all the time as a way to “prove” we are who and what we claim to be.

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The Basics

We are constantly signaling. Every minute of the day, we send signals to others to convey that we are intelligent, successful, attractive, healthy, well-adjusted people with impeccable taste. We signal to our bosses, coworkers, partners, friends, family, strangers on the street—just about everyone. Usually, we can’t just tell people we have a particular positive quality. Talk is cheap and most people have no reason to believe us. We only rely on straightforward assertions when the stakes are low. Plus, there are few things less appealing than bragging. So instead of telling others who we are and how great we are, we use signals.

Signaling is the area where you live and the car you drive. It’s how you take your coffee and whether you drink alcohol or not. It’s the shoes you wear, the newspapers you read, how you spend your Friday nights. People aren’t slaves to signaling; we do have our own preferences. But we are constantly constrained by the impression we want to make. We make choices that signal what we wish to convey.

Signaling is the act of conveying information about ourselves to people in a way that is costly for us and therefore believable. Without the associated cost of sending a signal, we would not be able to trust the information being sent. For instance, if it’s easy to signal that we are amazing without actually being amazing, then the signal would be comparatively worthless and no one would pay attention to it. Thus, effective signals take up a lot of time and energy, but are essential as a means of communication because the information they convey is trustworthy.

Signaling is such a fundamental part of the way we function that failing to recognize it means we miss out on an additional layer of detail in the world. It explains many behaviors that might seem illogical—like why we pay so much for wedding rings, why open offices interfere with productivity, why the smartest people have the messiest handwriting, and why giving gifts is valuable even if it’s a waste of time and money.

By understanding signaling, we can get better at efficiently conveying the information we want others to pick up on. We can assess if what we’re signaling is really worth the effort. We can learn to better detect what other people are indicating to us—and if it’s genuine or just a show. In this post, we’ll look at the origins of signaling, how it works, some of the many ways we use it, and the situations in which it doesn’t work.

Examples of Signaling

“Today, depending on group norms and circumstances, status can be derived from factors as diverse as academic achievement, one’s skills as a sea turtle hunter, and even the ability to drink a lot of beer.” The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology

Let’s take a look at some of the common instances of signaling you might see in your everyday life.

Advertising is rife with signals. Most ads are not really about espousing the positive qualities of a product or service. They might not even mention those at all. Instead, ads signal the kind of people a product is intended for—sending the message that buying it will further help signal their identity. There’s a big difference between a chocolate bar commercial that shows a bunch of college students partying on the beach and one that shows a working parent relaxing once their kids are in bed. When we stand in a shop or browse a website deciding which shampoo or coffee to buy, those advertising signals influence our decisions. We’re drawn to the products that signal they’re for people like us, and in turn, will signal our identities.

Another theory posits that companies use expensive advertising to signal confidence in their product. Your local plumber isn’t going to buy a Superbowl ad because they (rightly) don’t believe their service can earn enough money to justify it. A company that spends millions on a campaign, however, clearly thinks their product is good enough for it to be worthwhile. When we watch a costly advertisement, we pick up on that confidence and assume we’re looking at a high-quality product. In Principles of Economics, Volume 1, Gregory Mankiw writes, “In the signaling theory of advertising, the advertisement itself contains no real information, but the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising… An action is being taken not for its intrinsic benefits but because the willingness to take that action conveys private information to someone observing it.”

Sociologists sometimes refer to the broken windows theory, which states that the visible effects of low-level crime, if unchecked, will send a signal that worse crimes are acceptable. The classic example is a neighborhood where an empty building has a broken window. If no one repairs it, it signals that no one is keeping an eye on the state of the neighborhood. Vandals might then break a few more windows or graffiti the building. People might start squatting in it. Things escalate and before anyone knows it, the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. As an old saying goes, if you let a camel poke its nose into the tent, you’ll end up with the whole camel sleeping in there. Small acts of negligence are significant if they act as signals.

Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamil write in Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Customers’ Trustworthiness that professional taxi drivers learn to pick up on the myriad ways prospective customers signal that they are safe to pick up. We’ve all heard numerous times about the risks of getting into a stranger’s car. But it’s easy to forget that the danger goes both ways. Letting a stranger get into your car is also a tremendous risk. Even in the age of apps like Uber, drivers often have far less information about passengers than the passengers have about the driver. Traditional drivers who collect passengers from street corners or phone calls have even less background knowledge.

The ability to read signals, then, is truly a life or death matter for taxi drivers. Gambetta and Hamil write, “For example, savvy drivers pick up passengers only at well-lit corners, not in dark alleys and savvy passengers go to safe places if they want to be picked up.” Unsafe passengers can and do mimic this behavior, but it carries a higher risk of them being seen or caught on CCTV getting into a taxi. The authors go on to write that “when asked, drivers often say their assessment of customers’ trustworthiness is driven by ‘gut feelings’ or ‘a sixth sense.’ Our expectation is that a logic underlies these feelings and that it consists of several cognitive steps, including an intuitive application of signaling theory.” If your profession involves any direct interactions with customers, you probably have an intuitive awareness of the signals that indicate if you can trust them or not.

With people we are not close to or have not known for long, we usually signal a desire to get along by ignoring any flaws or shortcomings and being polite. The psychiatrist Scott Alexander points out that we often countersignal the strength of an established relationship by doing the opposite. With close friends or long-term partners, it is common for us to make friendly jokes about flaws, or liberally use insults. We know the other person well enough to do this in a way that usually won’t cause genuine offence. We don’t need to signal affection, because it’s already established. They have enough prior information about us.

Honest and Dishonest Signaling

“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” ― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata

We use signals because they are costly and therefore more believable than straightforward information. But that doesn’t mean all signals are “true”—they can be categorized as honest or dishonest. An honest signal means the signaler possesses the trait they claim. A dishonest one means they don’t. If a signal is easy to fake, it degrades the value of the trait it advertises. A picture of someone in a fancy car used to signal wealth. Now that we’ve all heard of people hiring expensive cars for a photo op, it just looks sleazy without other signals indicating they own it.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to fake experience. For example, you could lie about having gone to medical school, but one day in the ER or surgery would reveal you as a fraud. If it were possible to be deceptive about your experience without anyone finding out, everyone would do it all the time. On the whole, signals that are easy to fake soon die out.

Countersignaling

“An effective use of countersignaling requires finesse. Most importantly, the countersignaller must already hold some independent air of mystique.” Tyler Cowen, Discover Your Inner Economist

A multibillionaire casually admits to eating at McDonald’s for breakfast every day. A powerful CEO shows up at the office in jeans and a hoodie. A middle-class mother sends her child to school in a pajama shirt with unbrushed hair. A New York Times bestselling author says, “Oh, I write books,” when asked what they do at a dinner party. A supermodel posts a candid picture without makeup or filters online.

These are all examples of countersignaling; the act of signaling something by not signaling that thing. A jeans-wearing CEO doesn’t need to show up in a suit. Their status is already assured and they don’t need to dress in a way that encourages employees to respect them. Well-off parents don’t need to do battle to get their kids to look smart at school because, unlike less wealthy parents, they are not as worried about being judged as incompetent. We countersignal when we can afford not to make the effort required to signal.

To give some more examples from The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit, the most educated people often have the messiest handwriting, and the smartest students are sometimes unwilling to raise their hands and answer questions in class. Those who are secure in their reputations feel little need to defend themselves against minor slights. The most talented people may have no need for formal credentials to impress employers.

This is not to say that countersignaling is inherently dishonest or deliberate. It is, in fact, honest signaling. A person who signals their intelligence by making no effort to signal their intelligence may indeed be humble and uninterested in making others feel inadequate. A very wealthy person may avoid showing their wealth for their own safety and to try to prevent other people from asking them for money. A sought-after consultant may try to be hard to contact because they already have more work than they can handle and don’t want to go through the hassle of turning down more. But generally, the term refers to an intentional lack of signaling. It can be hard to distinguish from genuine humility.

The essence of countersignaling is that those who do it feel no need to signal. The value of countersignaling is that it frees up time, energy and resources. Signaling correctly is an endless, exhausting process where one slip-up can undo previous efforts. Countersignaling is the easier option because it doesn’t involve an active effort. We are most likely to countersignal when a given trait is obvious to any observer. A person moving into an expensive area may not feel the need to signal wealth to their neighbors, because it’s clear from the fact they live there. As Rory Sutherland puts it, “…there is a very big psychological difference between doing something by choice and doing the same thing through necessity.” When we countersignal, we don’t feel insecure or embarrassed about it because we’re in control.

In Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen cautions readers to be wary of sharing your good news with too many people, especially ones you want to impress:

Paradoxically, reporting good news can make a person look bad. If we look anxious to reveal good news, our listeners assume that we don’t come by good news very often. Or perhaps our listeners believe we consider the good news a stroke of marvelous luck. Did Michael Jordan need to tell his friends every time he scored thirty points in a game?

If someone hears our good news through the grapevine, they’re far more likely to be impressed. Clearly we must have so much good news that we don’t even bother sharing it!

Information Asymmetry

“People who try to look smart by pointing out obvious exceptions actually signal the opposite.” Naval Ravikant

Signaling is necessary in situations of information asymmetry. One party in a transaction—and it may not be an economic one, simply any exchange of value—has more information than the other. Countersignaling is more appropriate when parties have symmetrical information.

Economist George Akerlof explored how a lack of honest signaling can sustain information asymmetry and damage a marketplace in his 1970 paper, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. Akerlof described the used car market, where vehicles fall into two loose categories, peaches (quality cars that function as expected) and lemons (cars with hidden flaws). It is incredibly difficult for the average buyer to figure out which category a prospective purchase falls into. There are few reliably honest signals that a car is a peach, while a lemon may show dishonest signals. So, buyers assume the worst. The result is a market where all cars are lemons, because dealers cannot appropriately price peaches. Luckily, this has changed since Akerlof’s time. We now have access to far more symmetrical information, both about individual vehicles and dealerships. With proper signaling, the market is more efficient. If this hadn’t occurred, the used car market could have disappeared altogether.

When we want to prompt another party to signal information we don’t currently possess, we take actions known as screening. We may not directly ask for it, but we encourage them to signal to us. If you ask the seller of a used car to give you a warranty, you’re not outright asking if it’s a lemon. You know that if it is, they won’t agree to it and you shouldn’t buy it. If they agree, that’s a pretty useful signal of the quality. Gregory Mankiw describes this as “an action taken by an uninformed party to induce an informed party to reveal information.” In the same way that markets find ways to screen products to ensure efficiency, we figure out means of screening the signals we receive from other people. A bouncer might ask someone their star sign to figure out if an ID is genuine. If someone claims they went to the same school as us, we might ask if they remember a certain teacher. A landlord might ask a prospective tenant for a deposit and first month’s payment upfront to indicate their ability to pay on time.

Signaling is not a static process in any situation—it’s always evolving.

Signaling in Biology

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” ― John Steinbeck

The concept of signaling theory originated in biology. Animals constantly signal to other members of their species, such as prospective mates, and to other species, such as potential predators. This enables them to communicate a lot of information without using language in the sense we do. In particular, humans and many animals use signaling to attract mates, by indicating their genetic fitness.

The peacock’s tail has long been a source of confusion for biologists. Charles Darwin wrote that the very sight of a single feather left him nauseated. Why would any living being evolve such extravagant, unwieldy plumage? The colorful birds threw a wrench into the works of his theories. Eventually, Darwin realized that sexual selection has different requirements from more general natural selection. Animals don’t just need to survive; they also need to pass on their genes. This means they need ways of signaling their worthiness to members of the opposite sex that are costly enough to be meaningful. A peacock’s tail is exactly that. To survive with such unwieldy plumage, a bird must be strong, healthy and smart—a good mate. The grander its feathers, the more desirable it is. The same is true for many other seemingly illogical features animals possess. Biologist Amotz Zahavi christened this the handicap principle, based on the idea that animals signal through features that are not beneficial for their physical survival, just their genetic survival.

When gazelles and similar animals spot a predator creeping towards them, they don’t always display the flight behavior we might expect. Instead, they engage in a behavior known as “stotting”: they leap dramatically into the air, lifting all four feet at once in a display that uses up a lot of energy and does nothing to help the gazelle get away. It is believed that stotting may be a form of signaling to display to a predator that an animal is strong, healthy and not worth chasing. Pursuing a fast-moving gazelle requires a huge energy expenditure, so predators prefer to pick out elderly, and sick ones that move slower. Stotting sends the signal that a particular animal isn’t worth pursuing.

Some animals are brightly colored to attract mates. Other plants and animals use color for a purpose akin to that of stotting, warding off predators. Aposematism is the term for colors, markings, or other physical features that signal an animal is poisonous or otherwise dangerous if eaten. For example, coral snakes indicate their venom with bright bands of red and yellow or white on black which are easily spotted even from far away. Skunks and badgers have white stripes that serve as the opposite of camouflage and signal their efficient defense mechanisms. To be so visible and still survive, they must be capable of defending themselves. Other species may piggyback on this by mimicking features that signal defenses they don’t actually possess, saving themselves the effort of, for example, producing toxic venom. This is known as Batesian mimicry. If predators cannot tell the difference, they will leave potentially dangerous meals alone to be on the safe side. As with any effective form of signaling, brightly colored markings are costly to an animal—they make it harder for them to hide—which is why they are effective. As a general heuristic, the more conspicuous an organism is, the deadlier it is.

Conspicuous Consumption

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”  ― Thorstein Veblen

Conspicuous consumption is the practice of choosing to purchase goods and services for their capacity to signal wealth and thereby excite respect or envy in others, rather than for their practical value. Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen debuted the concept in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noticed that the wealthiest people in society were eager to outright waste their money on useless purchases, purely for the status this would signal. Having the capacity to squander time and money was the ultimate signal of wealth during Veblen’s time, following the Industrial Revolution. The newly created leisure class suddenly had unprecedented wealth and opportunities for demonstrating it. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, conspicuous consumption was purely the domain of the very rich. Afterward, it was open to almost everyone and became a key part of the way we consume—with the need to signal becoming more important than utility in most of our purchases.

Key to conspicuous consumption is the Veblen good: an item that is coveted because it’s expensive. In a reversal of the traditional supply-demand curve, the higher the price, the greater the demand. Since high-quality items tend to be expensive, we often commit the logical fallacy of assuming all expensive items are of high quality. The value of Veblen goods is contingent on their efficacy as signals of wealth. Some Veblen goods are inherently scarce, which is the source of their value, even if they’re not objectively better than cheaper alternatives. Others aren’t scarce, just expensive.

Signaling in the Workplace

In Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting writes, “Many professionals in the public sector have come to the painful conclusion that they now have two tasks; to do their job and then to prove they’ve done it.” This is true in many workplaces in cultures that value overwork—people are incentivized to prioritize the appearance of hard work above all else. The result is deliberate efforts to signal productivity, no matter how counterproductive they prove to be for the company or the individual.

Open offices signal collaboration and productivity to investors or prospective hires. The sight of lots of people scuttling around in a bright, colorful space that hums with activity certainly signals positive qualities about a company. Never mind that it’s detrimental to nearly everyone, especially those on a maker schedule. Likewise, individuals in an office environment where they have no quiet space or privacy feel obligated to scurry around, without time to think, pause for lunch, or take a break. It’s all about looking busy, not about getting work done.

In so many offices being present is equated with working. The bigger and more chaotic the office, the more your actual productivity is obscured. Often, your only real solution to signaling your value is increasing your basic visibility. You may not be doing much—gossiping with colleagues, drinking endless cups of coffee, and taking long lunches—but you are physically present. You are signaling your desire to work and commitment to the company. Unfortunately, it would be better for you and your organization if you spent less time at the office, but with more of it being tangibly productive.

Meetings are another counterproductive signal. The assumption seems to be that the fuller your calendar is, the more important and valuable you are because everyone wants and needs to talk to you. In reality, however, meetings are often poorly run and their objectives are undefined. They are a waste of time, as they cut into the energy you have for learning, deliberate thinking, and actually producing something useful.

Conclusion

Signaling is a hidden dimension of the way we communicate. It crosses the barriers of language, culture, even species. We intuitively learn how to read the signals we encounter in our everyday lives. Being aware of signaling can help us better grasp the information we’re receiving and become more discerning about dishonest signaling or countersignaling. We also need to be aware of what we ourselves are signaling, not just what we’re saying. We can’t just expect to be believed. We need to consider our signals.

Illusion of Transparency: Your Poker Face is Better Than You Think

We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency bias can improve relationships, job performance, and more.

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“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When we experience strong emotions, we tend to think it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, we may assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.

That’s not true. Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up on is known as the illusion of transparency. It’s a fallacy that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.

For example, you arrive at the office exhausted after a night with too little sleep. You drift around all day, chugging espressos, feeling sluggish and unfocused. Everything you do seems to go wrong. At the end of the day, you sheepishly apologize to a coworker for being “useless all day.”

They look at you, slightly confused. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘You seemed fine to me.’ Clearly, they’re just being polite. There’s no way your many minor mistakes during the day could have escaped their notice. It must be extra apparent considering your coworkers all show up looking fresh as a daisy every single day.

Or imagine that you have to give a talk in front of a big crowd and you’re terrified. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Afterward, you chat to someone from the audience and remark: ‘So that’s what a slow-motion panic attack looks like.’

‘Well, you seemed like a confident speaker,’ they say. ‘You didn’t look nervous at all. I wish I could be as good at public speaking.’ Evidently, they were sitting at the back or they have bad eyesight. Your shaking hands and nervous pauses were far too apparent. Especially compared to the two wonderful speakers who came after you.

No one cares

“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to pick up on subtle cues related to the feelings of others. If you’re annoyed at your partner, they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your coworkers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about the next time they have to do any public speaking or when they can get a coffee.

In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make even the slightest effort to conceal your inner state, you’re quite able to hide it altogether from everyone.

Our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This egocentric bias leads to the spotlight effect—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.

Take the case of lying. Even if we try to err on the side of honesty, we all face situations where we feel we have no option except to tell a lie. Setting aside the ethics of the matter, most of us probably don’t feel good about lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. In one study, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught about half the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about a quarter of the time—a rate low enough for random chance to account for it.

Tactics

“Even if one is neither vain nor self-obsessed, it is so extraordinary to be oneself—exactly oneself and no one else—and so unique, that it seems natural that one should also be unique for someone else.” ― Simone de Beauvoir

Understanding how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.

Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views.

Likewise, if you think you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.

As Dylan Evans writes in Risk Intelligence: How To Live With Uncertainty,

The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice it can be done.

The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Set yourself free

Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Guess what? No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.

Back to public speaking: We get it all wrong when we think people can tell we’re nervous about giving a talk. In a study entitled “The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety,” Kenneth Savitskya and Thomas Gilovich tested how knowing about the effect could help people feel less scared about public speaking.1 When participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected.

But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.

The sun revolves around me, doesn’t it?

In psychology, anchoring refers to our tendency to make an estimated guess by selecting whatever information is easily available as our “anchor,” then adjusting from that point. Often, the adjustments are insufficient. This is exactly what happens when you try to guess the mental state of others. If we try to estimate how a friend feels, we take how we feel as our starting point, then adjust our guess from there.

According to the authors of a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,”

People are typically quite aware of their own internal states and tend to focus on them rather intently when they are strong. To be sure, people recognize that others are not privy to the same information as they are, and they attempt to adjust for this fact when trying to anticipate another’s perspective. Nevertheless, it can be hard to get beyond one’s own perspective even when one knows that.

This is similar to hindsight bias, where things seem obvious in retrospect, even if they weren’t beforehand. When you look back on an event, it’s hard to disentangle what you knew then from what you know now. You can only use your current position as an anchor, a perspective which is inevitably skewed.

If you’re trying to hide your mental state, you’re probably doing better than you think. Unless you’re talking to, say, a trained police interrogator or professional poker player, other people are easy to fool. They’re not looking that hard, so a mild effort to hide your emotions is likely to work well. People can’t read your mind, whether you’re trying to pretend you don’t hate the taste of a trendy new beer, or trying to conceal your true standing in a negotiation to gain more leverage.

The illusion of transparency explains why, even once you’re no longer a teenager, it still seems like few people understand you. It’s not that other people are ambivalent or confused. Your feelings just aren’t as clear as you think. Often you can’t see beyond the confines of your own head and neither can anyone else. It’s best to make allowances for that.

Footnotes
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    https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u47/sdarticle.pdf

How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape our Reality

“We can select truths that engage people and inspire action, or we can deploy truths that deliberately mislead. Truth comes in many forms, and experienced communicators can exploit its variability to shape our impression of reality.”

***

The truth is not as straightforward as it seems. There are many truths, some of them more honest than others. “On most issues,” writes Hector Macdonald in his book Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, “there are multiple truths we can choose to communicate. Our choice of truth will influence how those around us perceive an issue and react to it.”

We are often left with several truths, some more flattering to us than others. What we choose to see, and what we share with others, says a lot about who we are.

“There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”

— William James

Competing Truths

According to MacDonald, there are often many legitimate ways of describing a situation. Of course, it’s possible for anyone to cherry-pick the facts or truths they prefer, shaping the story to meet their needs. MacDonald offers an apt demonstration.

A few years ago, I was asked to support a transformation programme at a global corporation that was going through a particularly tough patch. … I interviewed the corporation’s top executives to gather their views on the state of their industry and their organization. After consolidating all the facts they’d given me, I sat down with the CEO in a plush Manhattan executive suite and asked him whether he wanted me to write the ‘Golden Opportunity’ story or the ‘Burning Platform’ story of his business.

These two phrases, “Golden Opportunity” and “Burning Platform,” describe two different approaches to telling the same story, or in this case, promoting the same plan. The first describes the incredible potential the client company can realize by transforming itself to meet growing demand. The profit is out there for them if they work together to make the necessary changes! The second phrase refers to internal struggles at the company and a potential downward spiral that can only be arrested if the company transforms itself to correct the problems. Both stories are true, and both are intended to create the same outcome: supporting a painful and difficult transformation. Yet they can create very different impressions in the minds of employees.

MacDonald illustrates how, when we interact with someone, especially someone who knows more than we do, they have an opportunity to shape our reality. That is, they can shape how we think, our ideas and opinions about a subject. Our perception of reality changes and “because we act on the basis of our perceptions” they change not only our thinking but our actions.

Spin Masters

I remember watching ads on TV when I was a kid claiming that 80 percent of dentists recommended Colgate-Palmolive. I wondered if my mom was trying to kill me by giving me Crest. I wasn’t the best in math, but I reasoned that if 80% of dentists were recommending Colgate, at most 20% were recommending Crest.

Of course, that’s exactly what Colgate wanted people to think—the survey was in comparison to other brands. But that wasn’t the whole story. The survey actually asked dentists which brands they would recommend, and almost all of them listed several. Colgate wasn’t lying—but they were using a very distorted version of the truth, designed to mislead. The Advertising Standards Authority eventually banned the ad.

People use this sort of spin all the time. Everyone has an agenda. You can deceive without ever lying. Politicians get elected on how effective they are at “spinning truths in a way that create a false impression.” It’s only too easy for political agendas to trump impartial truth.

The Three Types of Communicators

“It’s not simply that we’re being lied to; the more insidious problem is that we are routinely misled by the truth.”

In Truth, Macdonald explores the effects of three types of communicators: advocates, misinformers, and misleaders.

Advocates select competing truths that create a reasonably accurate impression of reality in order to achieve a constructive goal.

Misinformers innocently propagate competing truths that unintentionally distort reality.

Misleaders deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality that they know is not true.

We may feel better believing there is one single truth, and thinking everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do simply doesn’t have the truth. That’s not…true. Everyone, including you and me, has a lens on the situation that’s distorted by what they want, how they see the world, and their biases. The most dangerous truths are the credible ones that we convince ourselves are correct.

One idea I find helpful when faced with a situation is perspective-taking. I construct a mental room that I fill with all the participants and stakeholders around a table. I then put myself into their seats and try to see the room through their eyes. Not only does this help me better understand reality by showing me my blind spots, but it shows me what other people care about and how I can create win-wins.

Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, goes on to explore partial truths, subjective truths, artificial truths, and unknown truths. It’s a terrific read for checking your own perspective on truth, and understanding how truth can be used to both inform and mislead you.

The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right

The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful secret weapon. Without even realizing it, we can nudge others towards success. In this article, discover how expectations can influence performance for better or worse.

How Expectations Influence Performance

Many people believe that their pets or children are of unusual intelligence or can understand everything they say. Some people have stories of abnormal feats. In the late 19th century, one man claimed that about his horse and appeared to have evidence. William Von Osten was a teacher and horse trainer. He believed that animals could learn to read or count. Von Osten’s initial attempts with dogs and a bear were unsuccessful, but when he began working with an unusual horse, he changed our understanding of psychology. Known as Clever Hans, the animal could answer questions, with 90% accuracy, by tapping his hoof. He could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell the time and the date.

Clever Hans could also read and understand questions written or asked in German. Crowds flocked to see the horse, and the scientific community soon grew interested. Researchers studied the horse, looking for signs of trickery. Yet they found none. The horse could answer questions asked by anyone, even if Von Osten was absent. This indicated that no signaling was at play. For a while, the world believed the horse was truly clever.

Then psychologist Oskar Pfungst turned his attention to Clever Hans. Assisted by a team of researchers, he uncovered two anomalies. When blinkered or behind a screen, the horse could not answer questions. Likewise, he could respond only if the questioner knew the answer. From these observations, Pfungst deduced that Clever Hans was not making any mental calculations. Nor did he understand numbers or language in the human sense. Although Von Osten had intended no trickery, the act was false.

Instead, Clever Hans had learned to detect subtle, yet consistent nonverbal cues. When someone asked a question, Clever Hans responded to their body language with a degree of accuracy many poker players would envy. For example, when someone asked Clever Hans to make a calculation, he would begin tapping his hoof. Once he reached the correct answer, the questioner would show involuntary signs. Pfungst found that many people tilted their head at this point. Clever Hans would recognize this behavior and stop. When blinkered or when the questioner did not know the answer, the horse didn’t have a clue. When he couldn’t see the cues, he had no answer.

The Pygmalion Effect

Von Osten died in 1909 and Clever Hans disappeared from record. But his legacy lives on in a particular branch of psychology.

The case of Clever Hans is of less interest than the research it went on to provoke. Psychologists working in the decades following began to study how the expectations of others affect us. If someone expected Clever Hans to answer a question and ensured that he knew it, could the same thing occur elsewhere?

Could we be, at times, responding to subtle cues? Decades of research have provided consistent, robust evidence that the answer is yes. It comes down to the concepts of the self-fulfilling prophecy and the Pygmalion effect.

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area. Its name comes from the story of Pygmalion, a mythical Greek sculptor. Pygmalion carved a statue of a woman and then became enamored with it. Unable to love a human, Pygmalion appealed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She took pity and brought the statue to life. The couple married and went on to have a daughter, Paphos.

False Beliefs Come True Over Time

In the same way Pygmalion’s fixation on the statue brought it to life, our focus on a belief or assumption can do the same. The flipside is the Golem effect, wherein low expectations lead to decreased performance. Both effects come under the category of self-fulfilling prophecies. Whether the expectation comes from us or others, the effect manifests in the same way.

The Pygmalion effect has profound ramifications in schools and organizations and with regard to social class and stereotypes. By some estimations, it is the result of our brains’ poorly distinguishing between perception and expectation. Although many people purport to want to prove their critics wrong, we often merely end up proving our supporters right.

Understanding the Pygmalion effect is a powerful way to positively affect those around us, from our children and friends to employees and leaders. If we don’t take into account the ramifications of our expectations, we may miss out on the dramatic benefits of holding high standards.

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy is attributed to sociologist Robert K. Merton. In 1948, Merton published the first paper on the topic. In it, he described the phenomenon as a false belief that becomes true over time. Once this occurs, it creates a feedback loop. We assume we were always correct because it seems so in hindsight. Merton described a self-fulfilling prophecy as self-hypnosis through our own propaganda.

As with many psychological concepts, people had a vague awareness of its existence long before research confirmed anything. Renowned orator and theologian Jacques Benigne Bossuet declared in the 17th century that “The greatest weakness of all weaknesses is to fear too much to appear weak.”

Even Sigmund Freud was aware of self-fulfilling prophecies. In A Childhood Memory of Goethe, Freud wrote: “If a man has been his mother’s undisputed darling he retains throughout life the triumphant feeling, the confidence in success, which not seldom brings actual success with it.”

The IQ of Students

Research by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson examined the influence of teachers’ expectations on students’ performance. Their subsequent paper is one of the most cited and discussed psychological studies ever conducted.

Rosenthal and Jacobson began by testing the IQ of elementary school students. Teachers were told that the IQ test showed around one-fifth of their students to be unusually intelligent. For ethical reasons, they did not label an alternate group as unintelligent and instead used unlabeled classmates as the control group. It will doubtless come as no surprise that the “gifted” students were chosen at random. They should not have had a significant statistical advantage over their peers. As the study period ended, all students had their IQs retested. Both groups showed an improvement. Yet those who were described as intelligent experienced much greater gains in their IQ points. Rosenthal and Jacobson attributed this result to the Pygmalion effect. Teachers paid more attention to “gifted” students, offering more support and encouragement than they would otherwise. Picked at random, those children ended up excelling. Sadly, no follow-up studies were ever conducted, so we do not know the long-term impact on the children involved.

Prior to studying the effect on children, Rosenthal performed preliminary research on animals. Students were given rats from two groups, one described as “maze dull” and the other as “maze bright.” Researchers claimed that the former group could not learn to properly negotiate a maze, but the latter could with ease. As you might expect, the groups of rats were the same. Like the gifted and nongifted children, they were chosen at random. Yet by the time the study finished, the “maze-bright” rats appeared to have learned faster. The students considered them tamer and more pleasant to work with than the “maze-dull” rats.

In general, authority figures have the power to influence how the people subordinate to them behave by holding high expectations. Whether consciously or not, leaders facilitate changes in behavior, such as by giving people more responsibility or setting stretch goals. Like the subtle cues that allowed Clever Hans to make calculations, these small changes in treatment can promote learning and growth. If a leader thinks an employee is competent, they will treat them as such. The employee then gets more opportunities to develop their competence, and their performance improves in a positive feedback loop. This works both ways. When we expect an authority figure to be competent or successful, we tend to be attentive and supportive. In the process, we bolster their performance, too. Students who act interested in lectures create interesting lecturers.

In Pygmalion in Management, J. Sterling Livingston writes,

Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most … unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.

The Pygmalion effect shows us that our reality is negotiable and can be manipulated by others — on purpose or by accident. What we achieve, how we think, how we act, and how we perceive our capabilities can be influenced by the expectations of those around us. Those expectations may be the result of biased or irrational thinking, but they have the power to affect us and change what happens. While cognitive biases distort only what we perceive, self-fulfilling prophecies alter what happens.

Of course, the Pygmalion effect works only when we are physically capable of achieving what is expected of us. After Rosenthal and Jacobson published their initial research, many people were entranced by the implication that we are all capable of more than we think. Although that can be true, we have no indication that any of us can do anything if someone believes we can. Instead, the Pygmalion effect seems to involve us leveraging our full capabilities and avoiding the obstacles created by low expectations.

Clever Hans truly was an intelligent horse, but he was smart because he could read almost imperceptible nonverbal cues, not because he could do math. So, he did have unusual capabilities, as shown by the fact that few other animals have done what he did.

We can’t do anything just because someone expects us to. Overly high expectations can also be stressful. When someone sets the bar too high, we can get discouraged and not even bother trying. Stretch goals and high expectations are beneficial, up to the point of diminishing returns. Research by McClelland and Atkinson indicates that the Pygmalion effect drops off if we see our chance of success as being less than 50%. If an endeavor seems either certain or completely uncertain, the Pygmalion effect does not hold. When we are stretched but confident, high expectations can help us achieve more.

Check Your Assumptions

In Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education, Robert T. Tauber describes an exercise in which people are asked to list their assumptions about people with certain descriptions. These included a cheerleader, “a minority woman with four kids at the market using food stamps,” and a “person standing outside smoking on a cold February day.” An anonymous survey of undergraduate students revealed mostly negative assumptions. Tauber asks the reader to consider how being exposed to these types of assumptions might affect someone’s day-to-day life.

The expectations people have of us affect us in countless subtle ways each day. Although we rarely notice it (unless we are on the receiving end of overt racism, sexism, and other forms of bias), those expectations dictate the opportunities we are offered, how we are spoken to, and the praise and criticism we receive. Individually, these knocks and nudges have minimal impact. In the long run, they might dictate whether we succeed or fail or fall somewhere on the spectrum in between.

The important point to note about the Pygmalion effect is that it creates a literal change in what occurs. There is nothing mystical about the effect. When we expect someone to perform well in any capacity, we treat them in a different way. Teachers tend to show more positive body language towards students they expect to be gifted. They may teach them more challenging material, offer more chances to ask questions, and provide personalized feedback. As Carl Sagan declared, “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.”

A perfect illustration is the case of James Sweeney and George Johnson, as described in Pygmalion in Management. Sweeney was a teacher at Tulane University, where Johnson worked as a porter. Aware of the Pygmalion effect, Sweeney had a hunch that he could teach anyone to be a competent computer operator. He began his experiment, offering Johnson lessons each afternoon. Other university staff were dubious, especially as Johnson appeared to have a low IQ. But the Pygmalion effect won out and the former janitor eventually became responsible for training new computer operators.

The Pygmalion effect is a powerful secret weapon. Who wouldn’t want to help their children get smarter, help employees and leaders be more competent, and generally push others to do well? That’s possible if we raise our standards and see others in the best possible light. It is not necessary to actively attempt to intervene. Without even realizing it, we can nudge others towards success. If that sounds too good to be true, remember that the effect holds up for everything from rats to CEOs.

Members of our Learning Community can discuss this article here.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others

I’ll bet you think this article is about you.

“We all know selfishness when we see it,” writes essayist Kristin Dombek opening The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on The Fear of Narcissism. She’s right. We see it everywhere from TV to family and lovers. Playing in the tension between pathology and common selfishness, her book offers a thought-provoking look at how narcissism became a cultural phenomenon and repository for our fears.

What is wrong with the narcissist she asks?

This is harder to know. If you see the smile on the face of a murderer, you must run. But if you are unlucky enough to love someone who seems suddenly so into himself that he doesn’t care who he hurts, someone who turns from warm to gone when he doesn’t need you, so self-adoring or wounded he meets criticism with violence or icy rage, who turns into another person in front of your eyes, or simply turns away when he said he’d be there—if you love someone who seems to have the particular twenty-first-century selfishness in some more subtle, or worse, invisible way, you will likely go to the internet for help.

The internet of course offers answers to even the wrong questions.

You’ll read, in that seizable portion of the self-help internet we might call, awkwardly, the narcisphere, a story that can change the way you see everything if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you’re living in a movie. It’s familiar, this movie, as if you’ve seen in before and it’s a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You’re the hero.

The basic script plays out like this.

At first, the narcissist is extraordinarily charming, even kind and sweet. Then, after a while, he seems full of himself. It could be a “he” or a “she,” but let’s stick with “he.” That’s what you start to think, when you know someone like this: he’s full of himself. But the narcissist is empty.

Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. The murderer plagiarized most of his manifesto, obviously and badly, but often narcissists are so good at imitating that you won’t even notice. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people.

[…]

Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it’s a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he’d be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people’s feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.

[…]

It isn’t that the narcissist is just not a good person; she’s like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She’s not just bad; she’s a living, breathing lesson in what badness is.

Immanuel Kant offered a formulation for how to do the right thing: Asking yourself, if everyone acted this way, would the world be a better place? Good people, we tend to believe, will treat others as the ends themselves, not the means. Narcissists, along with psychopaths, do the opposite. For them, people are the means toward other ends. “If everyone were to follow suit,” Dombek writes, “the world would go straight to hell.”

The realization that the narcissist, not so much selfish as not really having a self, changes everything. Suddenly you can see them for what they are: puppets or clowns. While they may look human, they are not.

So what should you do when you are confronted with a narcissist?

It seems no matter what you answer, you’ll be haunted forever. With equal certainty the internet offers two pieces of common advice: love them and expect nothing and hope that they change, or run as fast and as far as you can.

If the prevailing wisdom that narcissism is becoming more and more common is indeed true, today’s prevailing advice doesn’t scale.

Kant’s advice no longer holds. But that is not the worst of it. Running is an act of the very same coldness described by the diagnosis. What if the only way to escape a narcissist is to act like one yourself?

The question of the selfishness of others, though, leads quickly to the very difficult question of how we know things about others at all, and the mind-knotting question of how we know things at all.

Dombek goes on to explore provocative questions of ourselves—most of us can be put in environments where we display situational narcissisms; why is having a boyfriend or boss like having a villain; why do the narcissistic descriptions of others (“in moments you quietly bury deep inside you”) remind you of yourself.

 

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis

Imagine a sprinter running an Olympic race. He’s competing in the 1600 meter run.

The first two laps he runs at a steady but hard pace, trying to keep himself consistently near the head, or at least the middle, of the pack, hoping not to fall too far behind while also conserving energy for the whole race.

About 800 meters in, he feels himself start to fatigue and slow. At 1000 meters, he feels himself consciously expending less energy. At 1200, he’s convinced that he didn’t train enough.

Now watch him approach the last 100 meters, the “mad dash” for the finish. He’s been running what would be an all-out sprint to us mortals for 1500 meters, and yet what happens now, as he feels himself neck and neck with his competitors, the finish line in sight?

He speeds up. That energy drag is done. The goal is right there, and all he needs is one last push. So he pushes.

This is called the Goal Gradient Effect, or more precisely, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis. Its effect on biological creatures is not just a feeling, but a real and measurable thing.

The Math of Human Behavior

The first person to try explaining the goal gradient hypothesis was an early behavioral psychologist named Clark L. Hull.

As with other animals, when it came to humans, Hull was a pretty hardcore behaviorist, thinking that human behavior could eventually be reduced to mathematical prediction based on rewards and conditioning. As insane as this sounds now, he had a neat mathematical formula for human behavior:

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Some of his ideas eventually came to be seen as extremely limiting Procrustean Bed type models of human behavior, but the Goal Gradient Hypothesis was replicated many times over the years.

Hull himself wrote papers with titles like The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis and Maze Learning to explore the effect of the idea in rats. As Hull put it, “...animals in traversing a maze will move at a progressively more rapid pace as the goal is approached.” Just like the runner above.

Most of the work Hull focused on were animals rather than humans, showing somewhat unequivocally that in the context of approaching a reward, the animals did seem to speed up as the goal approached, enticed by the end of the maze. The idea was, however, resurrected in the human realm in 2006 with a paper entitled The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention. (link)

The paper examined consumer behavior in the “goal gradient” sense and found, alas, it wasn’t just rats that felt the tug of the “end of the race” — we do too. Examining a few different measurable areas of human behavior, the researchers found that consumers would work harder to earn incentives as the goal came within sight and that after the reward was earned, they’d slow down their efforts:

We found that members of a café RP accelerated their coffee purchases as they progressed toward earning a free coffee. The goal-gradient effect also generalized to a very different incentive system, in which shorter goal distance led members to visit a song-rating Web site more frequently, rate more songs during each visit, and persist longer in the rating effort. Importantly, in both incentive systems, we observed the phenomenon of post-reward resetting, whereby customers who accelerated toward their first reward exhibited a slowdown in their efforts when they began work (and subsequently accelerated) toward their second reward. To the best of our knowledge, this article is the first to demonstrate unequivocal, systematic behavioural goal gradients in the context of the human psychology of rewards.

Fascinating.

Putting The Goal Gradient Hypothesis to Work

If we’re to take the idea seriously, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis has some interesting implications for leaders and decision-makers.

The first and most important is probably that incentive structures should take the idea into account. This is a fairly intuitive (but often unrecognized) idea: Far-away rewards are much less motivating than near term ones. Given a chance to earn $1,000 at the end of this month, and each after that, or $12,000 at the end of the year, which would you be more likely to work hard for?

What if I pushed it back even more but gave you some “interest” to compensate: Would you work harder for the potential to earn $90,000 five years from now or to earn $1,000 this month, followed by $1,000 the following month, and so on, every single month during five year period?

Companies like Nucor take the idea seriously: They pay bonuses to lower-level employees based on monthly production, not letting it wait until the end of the year. Essentially, the end of the maze happens every 30 days rather than once per year. The time between doing the work and the reward is shortened.

The other takeaway comes to consumer behavior, as referenced in the marketing paper. If you’re offering rewards for a specific action from your customer, do you reward them sooner, or later?

The answer is almost always going to be “sooner.” In fact, the effect may be strong enough that you can get away with less total rewards by increasing their velocity.

Lastly, we might be able to harness the Hypothesis in our personal lives.

Let’s say we want to start reading more. Do we set a goal to read 52 books this year and hold ourselves accountable, or to read 1 book a week? What about 25 pages per day?

Not only does moving the goalposts forward tend to increase our motivation, but we repeatedly prove to ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing them. This is classic behavioral psychology: Instant rewards rather than delayed. (Even if they’re psychological.) Not only that, but it forces us to avoid procrastination — leaving 35 books to be read in the last two months of the year, for example.

Those three seem like useful lessons, but here’s a challenge: Try synthesizing a new rule or idea of your own, combining the Goal Gradient Effect with at least one other psychological principle, and start testing it out in your personal life or in your organization. Don’t let useful nuggets sit around; instead, start eating the broccoli.