How Your Birthday Affects Your Life

photo  (c) simon battensby

What does it take to make it big into professional sports? Good DNA? Talent? Great coaches? Money? All good bets, but there’s one particular thing, which is completely out of your control, that affects your chances like no other. Your birth date.

Alex Bellos – a math professor with a taste for football who’s written a brilliant book about numbers in everyday life – has conducted an analysis of birthdays among footballers participating in the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. He found out that February, the shortest month, has the highest number of birthdays, 79 out of 736. Moreover, birth dates are strongly skewed towards the first half of the year: the first five months are all above average, while five of the last six are below. There is only one day with no World Cup birthdays in January and February, but there are eight in November and December.

Why? Because the eligibility cut-off date for sports schools is usually January 1st. At an early age, this creates significant difference in physicality: a kid who’s born on January 1st could be playing alongside one who was born up to 12 months later. So it pays to be relatively older – or bigger than your peers, that is – if you want to make the varsity team.

This is called the Relative age effect. I first encountered it while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he analyzed the work of a Canadian psychologyst who found out that most elite Canuck hockey players where born in the first half of the year.

That doesn’t mean that you should plan your pregnancies to end in early January at all costs. If you’d rather see your offspring pursue an academic career instead of a football, it would be best to look at autumn. Data shows that the likelihood of getting into Cambridge or Oxford – England’s most prestigious universities – are 30 percent higher for applicants born in October than in July. Why? Because the cut-off date for school year groups is September 1st. Autumn-born students have 25 percent more chances to be accepted than summer-born students. Those crucial few months of added development evidently affect one’s mental abilities as well, so when looking to get into a good school, September is actually January.

It turns out that your birth date, along with other things that you can’t choose like your birth place, your given name, and your ethnicity, can greatly affect the outcome of your life. But birthdays are somewhat paradoxical: how many people do you think must be in the same room to make it more likely than not that two of them share the same birthday? Try to come up with a number.

The answer is just 23. If there are 23 people in the room, it’s statistically more likely than not that two will share a birthday. Why does this sound surprising? Because of the way we relate to math problems such as this. Instinctively, you are prone to wonder how probable it is that someone in the room has the same birthday as you. You are reasoning on a 1 in 365 chance, but that is not the question asked. With 23 people, there are 253 possible pairs, but only 22 include you. Out of these 253 pairs, the probability that none of them includes an identical birthday – because there are only 365 birth dates – is 49 percent, or less than half. Think about this the next time you’re at a party.

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Why You’ll Hate the New Facebook Design

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Why does everyone complain when Facebook gets a new design?

As soon as the changes appear, people start moaning. It’s happening right now, as the redesigned News Feed is being rolled out to all users, after almost a year of fine tuning.
But why does everyone get so grumpy?

Humans are change averse when it comes to graphical user interfaces, among many other things. Knowing your way around a website or software is a matter of habit. When it changes, you lose your points of reference and have to learn your way around again.
That leaves you dumbfounded until you new habits are formed over the old ones, which can be a bit of an annoyance. In other words, changes in Facebook make you feel stupid for a little while, and you hate that.

Change is difficult. Moving to a new city, starting a new job or learning how to use an operating system are all processes that require you to think about every little thing you’re doing. It’s hard work, but it’s something we generally accept, if maybe ungraciously, as a part of life. When change completely eludes our control, though, we feel lost. How would you react if you got home tonight to a completely rearranged furniture layout in your house? Change can be good and exciting, depending on your personality, but it’s a form of loss, and we are all loss averse by nature. If I gave you a $50 bill and asked if you want to gamble it on a coin toss for double or nothing, you’d probably do what most people do and choose to keep your $50. We tend to value what we already have about twice as much as potential gains, so the gamble is not worth the risk.

Computers haven’t been around that long in absolute terms, so we haven’t yet developed a specific set of psychological tools to apply to changes in that area, and we follow the general rule. Some folks feel that they have a right to retain the interface design they like best (the one they have gotten used to) and claim it’s intolerable that they are not given this option. They even make petitions that go nowhere and are soon forgotten. But Facebook isn’t a product you own or a software you’ve bought. It’s a free service that wants to make money off you and the user interface design is an integral part of its marketing effort, not a matter of anyone’s taste. Companies that pay Facebook to display their ads want to know how they will look like and demand consistency. As Mark Zuckerberg famously said, «you are the product».

People have a right to complain all they want. It’s a way to cope with the anxiety brought on by change. But it’s an empty effort when it comes to Facebook. As soon as you readjust to the new layout, a new habit forms and all is well. So, when you feel like you want to kick up a fuss, just wait a week. By then, it’s likely you’ll no longer care.

The Age of the Selfish Meme

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The times, they are a-changin’.

The image above (via Reddit) comes from an Australian store that has started charging $5 to customers who peruse the goods but don’t buy anything, assuming they are just looking around to buy elsewhere later (possibly online), a strategy known as showrooming.

That’s a difficult problem to face if you’re a brick and mortar store: Best Buy has famously solved it by price-matching any online deal on its merchandise. This store chose a very different approach, one that is sure to alienate many potential customers. We are going through a big transition phase in how we deal with technology. Online shopping is already a taken-for-granted habit for many, but other changes are more subtle and take the stage less ceremoniously. Think of voicemail, which almost no one uses anymore. If you leave someone a voicemail and believe they will listen to it, you’re talking a dead language. But nobody tells you: you just have to know. That’s maybe why Nick Bilton of the New York Times caused a stir when he blogged about current trends in digital etiquette, saying that people who reply to an email or a text just to say “thank you” are rude.

It’s a generational clash all right, with grownups blaming the kids for being unpolite, but it’s way more than that. It’s not the first time we go through these hurdles, only the tools are different. One of «the first crises of techno-etiquette», as the Times calls it, happened just after the telephone was invented: nobody knew what to say when they picked up a call. Ahoy! and What is wanted? were popular options before we eventually settled on Hello. That was a single problem related to a single piece of technology. Think of how many of these processes we are going through today. The difference is that there’s no concerted effort, because most of these problems have not been around long enough to create a definite distinction between right and wrong. So everyone gives it a shot and hopes for the best.

In evolutionary terms, when someone smarter that you is around, you’re in trouble. Even if you’re standing on a freshly killed gazelle, there’s always a sneaky scavenger lurking somewhere. People being born today are delivered to a full-digital world, and this creates a fracture as large as we’ve ever seen. Some folks, the older generations, will fade away before this becomes more than a nuisance for them, but others who are still relatively young are at risk of suffering.

Technology is mature enough for some companies to have become dinosaurs. Think of the difference between Microsoft and Google. They were founded just 23 years apart, but if feels like a century. Yahoo, another flailing tech company, just made headlines around the world for having bought Summly, a news reading app that sums up news stories through an algorythm, for $30 million. The app was made by a 17-year old who is being hired by Yahoo. There’s no media outlet in the world that hasn’t picked up the story, because a kid who makes millions with an app has just slightly less appeal than a litter of puppies: it’s irresistible. But Summly had been around for a year, very few people used it, and Yahoo has already killed it. Yet this has become the global talk of the day and it’s given the company a fresh coat of paint, not a bad deal for $30 million, or 0,75 percent of Yahoo’s cash reserves. There’s no right or wrong in this: you can either see it as a brilliantly cynical PR move or a genuine sign that there’s hope for humanity. Either way, I’m not sure this trick can be successfully pulled off for much longer.

The following image is floating around Facebook: 536319_321387391297312_836869227_n It’s a static image that appears to be moving because it tricks your brain a little bit. The image is shared with the encouragement to “type 1 in the comments to see the magic”. Of course all the “magic” is already there, and absolutely nothing happens if you type “1” in the comments. You should know that. And yet this has racked up over 200,000 comments, with most people sheepishly complying and inflating the comment counter (an empty endeavor at that, but that’s how the Internet works). Imagine if someone told you in the street to shout out «one» very loud to “see the magic”. You’d think they’re nuts. You would certainly not comply. But in technology, the weakest of nudges will make you do things without thinking.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, saw it coming: just like genes use biological beings to propagate themselves, we are now slaves to memes as well. Most people don’t take these things seriously: they are not afraid to act like digital idiots. They still see this realm as something separate from reality, where the effort required to do stuff is minimal (one click) and so is the social cost of errors and mishaps. There’s an obvious detachment: people still use nicknames even where they’re not supposed to. There are companies that block off Facebook and other sites so that their employees do not slack off at work. In a few years (wether Facebook will still be around or not) that will be considered as outrageous as asking people to relinquish their phones before they sit at their desks.

For some, technology is not yet life, it’s something that still sits on top of it, separated. But it’s not. We are constantly going through sweeping social change, but it’s less apparent when you’re standing in the middle of it. And as with every social change, some people are on the forefront of it, some are puzzled by it, and some can’t even see it fly over their heads. It’s a very interesting time, but because transitions have uncertain boundaries it will be probably forgotten by history. Just like those times when we still hadn’t figured out what to say when we answered the phone.

The Up-Goer Five and Quantum Mechanics

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What you see above is something called The Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

It’s an online text editor that uses only the 1,000 most common words in the English language as its word database, giving you a warning every time you type anything that isn’t included in that list. The idea comes from an episode of the popular xkcd web comic in which the author tried to explain the Saturn V NASA rocket using only such words.
Thus it became the Up-Goer Five.

Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist, thought it would be neat to make a text editor based on that idea, so people could try their hand at explaining complex topics with simple words. This has led to some fine examples of wordsmanship, such as one by a linguistics graduate who explained Saturn and its moons. Here’s a quote from it, talking about the Cassini probe:

People wanted to learn about the big ringed world and the smaller worlds that go around it, so they sent a computer into space with computer eyes and a computer nose and other parts to see and smell these worlds and tell us about them.

There are many other brilliant examples that you can find on the text editor page itself or on Twitter, searching for the hashtag #upgoerfive. I gave it a shot, trying to explain the significance of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment in the realm of quantum mechanics and its various interpretations. Here it is:

When a group of men decided to come up with an idea of how very small things work, they could not all agree on the same one. So, after some time, one of them made a story about a cat to show how the idea that most others believed in could make you imagine things that were not possible.

He thought of this cat sitting in a box, close to some very small stuff that you can’t see with your eyes which has half the chance of going through a change in the next hour. If that happened, some other very bad stuff that is locked away would be set free in the box, killing the cat.

The idea he was against says that the cat would be dead and living at the same time until you opened the box to take a look inside. This showed that you could carry the state of the very small stuff that had gone through a change and force it onto the cat, a much bigger thing that you can see and touch. Only when you looked in would the cat stop being in both states and finally settle into living or dying, and exactly because you had opened the box to see.

But a cat can’t be living and dead at the same time, can it? So this story became really well known and it has been used in many other stories, even though the person who made it wanted to show that the idea most others believed in was probably not perfect. Yet not many people who hear it know that and think that he only wanted to talk about strange cats.

It’s fun. You should try it yourself.

The Darkness Around Suicide

The tragic death of the nurse who was the victim of a prank call at Kate Middleton’s hospital a few days ago highlights how little is known, or understood, about the complex issue of suicide.

After the news broke that Jacintha Saldanha had killed herself, the world was enraged. Twitter immediately turned into a violent storm of accusations and hatred, and the accounts of the culprits were quickly deleted. Many people stated that the two Australian DJs had «blood on their hands» and needed to be charged with manslaughter. They were to blame for what happened.

I am deeply sorry for the death of this woman, a married mother of two. But the pranksters cannot be blamed. While shame is a powerful motivator for suicide, a single event is almost never enough. Very few media outlets bothered to call a psychologist to comment on the events in their first round of reporting. Fox News, not a news source I normally admire, had the president of the American Psychologist Association correctly suggest that the call might have been «a final straw» that led Saldanha to take her own life.

No one is directly to blame. You could say that the hospital director should have know better than to put a vulnerable person in charge of the phone when he had the world’s most famous patient under his care. And you can question the taste, the timeliness and the motives of the pranksters, but those observations should stay the same regardless of what happened as a result. Prince Charles himself had a laugh about it, before tragedy struck of course, by saying «How do you know I’m not a radio station?».
If you listen to the call, the intentions of the hoaxers are pretty clear: «We thought a hundred people before us would have tried it, we just thought it was such a silly idea, and the accents were terrible», they explain in a video interview, «Not for a second we thought we would actually get to speak to anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on». The joke was stupid to start with, but it spiraled out of control.

Suicides only make the news under certain conditions, chiefly when they follow a murder, or when they are linked to fame. Not necessarily a celebrity: in 2010, Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, who builds tech gadgets for Apple and other leading brands, made magazine covers after a slew of suicides. There were 14 registered self-inflicted deaths among Foxconn’s 930,000 employees that year. Sadly, those were actually pretty good numbers compared to China’s national rate of over 22 suicides out of every 100,000 people each year (Foxconn only suffered 1,5). That didn’t stop the company from responding to the public outcry by installing nets in its dorms to discourage workers from jumping out of windows. Bad publicity kills good business.

What this shows is that not only suicide is questionably treated by the media, but that we are extremely unfamiliar with the numbers surrounding it. China has, admittedly, one of the world’s highest suicide rates: a staggering 287,000 people kill themselves each year, out of a population of 1,3 billion. That’s about 786 people a day, a figure that’s hard to swallow. You’d think that has mostly to do with China. But it doesn’t.

The United States have one of the highest rates of homicides among developed countries: in 2009, there were 16,500 deaths by murder. And how many deaths by suicide? Over 36,000. More than twice as many people kill themselves each year in the US than are killed by others. In the same year, 2009, suicide has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death by injury. And more American soldiers routinely die by taking their own lives than are killed in combat. In India, another country with elevated rates, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people (15-29 years of age) after transportation accidents, with around 187,000 fatalities in 2010 alone.

The puzzling numbers are not the end of the story. One commonly held belief is that suicide rates peak around holidays, especially in the winter. But that’s hardly the case: people commit suicide far more frequently during springtime. Why? There are many theories, but increased social interaction may be a leading factor: it’s just when you hope that things might get better, like the weather outside, that you get depressed the most if they actually don’t. Also, it’s easier to feel socially disconnected when everybody else is out having fun. The intricate inner workings of suicidal tendencies are also based upon cultural or racial differences: African-americans are half as likely to kill themselves and six times more likely to be murdered. But some of those homicides may be suicides in disguise: psychologists say this is due to the fact that white and black people externalize their frustrations about life differently, because of cultural heritage. There’s a type of murder called “victim-precipitated homicide”, which happens when someone engages in violent or reckless behavior that gets them killed. An estimated 30 percent of urban homicides may belong to this variant, which is not recognized as a form of suicide.
A similar thing happens after news break that a celebrity has committed suicide:
not only you get a spike in actual suicides out of emulation, but the number of fatal car accidents involving a single person also spikes. Many of those are people killing themselves.

In the end, nearly all suicides go unnoticed and undiscussed, because this is a taboo topic across all cultures. But there’s another reason why so few are reported in newspapers: even common people committing suicide, for example subway jumpers, inspire emulators. Especially individuals demographically similar to the person who died, and who lived in the same geographical area. It’s called the Werther Effect, after Goethe’s novel. The result is that media outlets in many countries self-regulate against reporting suicides to deter copycats.

Suicide is not a rare thing, it’s a common thing. It can hardly be caused by a single event, however devastating: it’s a cumulative problem often linked to mental illness. There’s not nearly enough awareness around it, compared to other similarly life-threatening issues. All the time and effort that have been spent over the last few days chastising two hapless idiots who didn’t know what they were doing, could have been better spent exploring the real problem. Awareness can save lives. Ruining those of two additional people accomplishes nothing.

The Snooze Dilemma

Waking up is hard to do.

So, to snooze or not to snooze? Well, it turns out that snoozing, like many enjoyable things in life, is critically bad for you. And you shouldn’t do it. Here’s why.

First of all, waking up is hard because your body goes through a series of changes. While you sleep, temperature, heart rate and blood pressure all decrease, and you get high on serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that explains why your bed feels so much cozier in the morning than at night. If you align yourself properly with your circadian rhythm, by waking up at roughly the same time every day, your body knows. And in the hour before alarm time, it starts to drag you out of that pit by warming up your metabolism. This is an ideal situation, and explains why you sometimes open your eyes just minutes before your designated wake up time. If, nevertheless, you’re still sleepy and hit the snooze button, this gets in the way of that natural reboot process, creating a chemical imbalance in your body, which is now pumping dopamine, the antagonist of serotonin. The end result is a befuddled mess. On the other hand, if you’re not getting enough sleep in the first place and you’re off your natural rhythm, snoozing might become irresistible. But in this case, you risk falling back into deep sleep, only to be ripped out of it nine minutes later. That works against every natural process evolution has devised to ease you out of sleep, and wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Also, it generally prompts you to just snooze again. And again.

In other words, snooze time is never good. Unfortunately, when you need to make that assessment you’re a groggy half-human who’d kill for sleep. But snoozing is not always a snap judgment: some people construct elaborate snooze routines with multiple alarms that start up to an hour before their actual wake up time, thinking that’s the only way they can make it out of bed. Instead, they just subject themselves to an hour of useless, fragmented sleep that does nothing to soothe their bodies.

But wait, why is snooze time traditionally fixed at exactly nine minutes? Apparently it has to do with standardized gears inside alarm clocks in the 1950s: the snooze cog had to fit with existing ones and it could be set at either 9 or 10 minutes. The choice fell on 9, because 10 minutes was thought to be enough to “fall back into deep sleep”.
Another explanation that I like better has to do with cheap electronic components: with a 9 minute snooze, a digital alarm clock only has to “watch” the last digit to know when to go off again. This allows for simpler circuitry to be devoted to the function, and ultimately makes the clock cheaper to make.

Resisting the temptation to snooze is not easy. It’s an interesting problem because it creates a conflict between your present self (“I want to wake up on time tomorrow”) and your future self (“I want to sleep right now”), a staple of behavioral economics. So, alarm clock manufacturers have learned about this and sell an array of devices that nudge you into waking up. The Clocky alarm, for example, lets you snooze once, and then literally comes to life, jumps off your nightstand, and finds a place to hide, all the while blasting an ear-ripping alarm sound. You’re then forced to go find it and switch it off.
The Puzzle alarm is even more taxing on your fragile, unstable cognitive functions: the moment it goes off, it explodes a jigsaw puzzle and won’t stop until you have correctly solved it. But honestly, I don’t think anyone actually wants to incorporate a ridiculous-looking, self-hiding alarm into their lifestyle: a week into using it your rational, present self will just go ‘what the hell’ and give up. By then you’ll either have learned the lesson or gone back to snoozing.

Still, the best anti-snooze alarm of all is, hands down, the SnuzNLuz. It gets you on your toes by making donations to political causes you hate, every time you hit the button.

Alas, it doesn’t really exist. It has a product page at Thinkgeek.com, but it’s nothing more than an April Fool’s prank. But, ThinkGeek has turned joke products into reality before, so you never know.

Perhaps the SnuzNLuz has taken a cue from Stickk, a website that encourages you to commit to a goal by setting up a financial stake. No wonder, it was founded by a group of Yale economists and it capitalizes on the fact that we are all instinctively loss averse.
If you want to commit to going the gym regularly, for example, you can set up a weekly attendance goal and create a contract; whenever you fail to report in, Stickk will send some of your money to an anti-charity of your choice (options include the NRA, the Pro-Choice Foundation, and the Manchester United Fan Club).

So, what should you do? At the risk of sounding obnoxious, you should really try to get enough sleep in the first place: chronic sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do to your body, as it impairs your cognitive functions, your memory and your learning abilities. And you should never snooze anyway, not even when you’d sell your soul for five more minutes. How? By understanding that under no circumstances, and in absolutely no way, snoozing is going to make your day any better. Yes, you’ll get that brief, blissful feeling of being wrapped into the sheets again, but you’ll pay the price. We’re not good at resisting temptation, even when we know that doing so will pay off, but it’s never too late too learn. People who can delay gratification do better in life.
You might just start by learning not to snooze.

The Paradox of Pleasure

Which would make you a happier person, winning the lottery or being in a car crash that leaves you paraplegic?

The answer to this apparently illogical question is, well, neither. Studies show that people who go through these radically different life experiences tend to revert, over time, to their previous level of satisfaction. Winning the lottery will send you to cloud nine for a while, but in a couple of months you’ll be back to where you started, no matter what you do with the money. Even more interestingly, ending up in a wheelchair will destroy you morale in the short run, but over the same amount of time you will again fall back to roughly the same happiness level as before the accident (psychologists call this your set point).

This rather disconcerting trait of human nature is called Hedonic Adaptation, and it was first studied in the 1970s, analyzing precisely the effects of lottery wins and debilitating accidents. Humans have an amazing ability to adjust to the hardships of life: that’s how people carry on after devastating losses and terrible misfortunes. On a more philosophical level, this also means that single life events, no matter how bad or good, do not necessarily alter our existence and might lead to very unexpected consequences. Winston Churchill, writing in his biography, remarked on this: «One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest».

This explains why people who go through terrible illnesses or other life-threatening events often sport a renewed outlook on life (think of how many times Michael J. Fox remarked that his life has been so much better since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease), but it also carries a few unwanted side-effects. It makes it really hard to find happiness, for instance: just like you get used to the bad stuff, you make quick work of the good things as well. This is the Hedonic Treadmill, a perilous exercise that takes the fitness away from your mood. Think of the last time you bought a brand new car: how long did it take before the excitement of driving it wore off? Don Draper put it best in an episode of Mad Men: «What is happiness? It’s just a moment before you need more happiness».

We’re not very good at understanding how we derive pleasure from things. For example, when you’re doing something you hate, like filling out tax forms, you’re always happy to take a break. But when you’re having a good time, you don’t want to interrupt it: nobody wants to get out of the hot tub to pick up the phone. But it turns out we’re dead wrong: separating yourself from a dreaded task makes coming back to it a lot harder, and gets you through the painful process of starting it again. But getting back to something good reignites the pleasure, leaving you with a greater overall satisfaction that cancels out the annoyance of the interruption.

It gets worse. You might think that when evaluating an experience, like a vacation, you rationally weigh all factors and take everything into account. In fact, we tend to judge experiences mostly on how they peaked and ended. This is called, not surprisingly, the peak-end rule and it’s vastly counterintuitive. To imagine this, think of taking a vacation to Hawaii for a week, in two different scenarios. In the first one, you nearly miss your flight because of traffic and, when you get to the islands, it rains for three straight days. But then a gorgeous sunshine comes out, you enjoy the remaining four days, and on the flight back you get bumped to first class for free, arriving home nice and rested. In the second scenario, you get upgraded to first class on the way to Honolulu and enjoy four days of fantastic weather, but then the rain starts. As you grudgingly step off the plane on the way back after having spent the last three days indoors, your find out that your luggage has been lost and you spend an hour filling out forms at the airline desk. Which of the two experiences do you think would leave you more satisfied?

Great psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the idea and conducted a famous study about this in the mid 1990s, focusing on the rather displeasing procedure of colonoscopy, in which a probe is inserted through the anus to inspect the bowels for tumors; the study investigated ways to increase the likelihood that a patient would accept a follow-up procedure in the future. Remembering the peak-end rule and knowing that the discomfort is felt mostly when the instrument is moving, Kahneman suggested that doctors leave it in for a few more minutes at the end, motionless, instead of immediately removing it. Patients treated this way rated the procedure as less painful, even though they had the instrument inside them for longer.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight back. How can you escape the hedonic treadmill, for instance? By buying experiences rather than objects. Research shows that spending money on transient rather than constant experiences will leave you with a much greater level of satisfaction. The memory of something you’ve done or learned can be revisited and stays with you forever, whereas the appeal of a brand new purchase soon fades away. So if you were undecided between that concert ticket and a new pair of shoes, you know what to do now. Happy memories.