Forgetful creativity

“Wow, we really came up with some nice ideas. Look at these notes! I used half the notebook.”

“Indeed. I think in the end we figured out exactly where we want to go with the project.”

“Yes. And speaking of going… Where are the car keys?”

“S#!t, we left them at the restaurant!?!?”

“OK! I’ll run and get them.”

“No, no, no… not at the one that we just ate.”

“Where then?”

“I think we left them at the restaurant where we entered before and sat for a while to look at the menu, and decided not to eat there. Remember?”

“That was more than 2 hours ago!”

“Yes… hurry.”

Forgetfulness might have a lot of reasons. I think engaging in a creative process is another one. You dive into an idea, you flow, and it’s a bit intoxicating.

Do you become more absent minded when you are generating ideas? How does a creative activity affect your behavior?

It turns out, forgetfulness may actually be good for you.

The power of yelling

“Excuse me, but I had reserved a minivan because we are five people with suitcases, going camping, and we need a large vehicle. We simply cannot fit in the car you are offering us.”

“I am sorry but this is the largest car we have at the moment at our branch. You will notice that it has a rather large trunk, hence you will possibly find it more comfortable than you imagine. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

“But this is not acceptable. I cannot and do not want to fit in this car. I specifically reserved a van because of my needs.”

“The car we gave you is newer and in better condition. We are actually upgrading you, sir.”

“Well, I don’t think this will work. What if I cannot fit in it?”

“I am sorry but we cannot offer you anything bigger right now. Here are your keys.”

I was confused. I took the keys and headed outside. Our car was waiting for us in the corner. My friends were standing next to it with their large suitcases. They opened their arms towards my direction, asking me what went wrong. They must have noticed the huge question mark floating above my head. As I explained to them the situation, they looked at the car in the corner, rather depressed.

One of them, though, listened to me quietly, remaining unusually calm. She then suddenly grabbed the keys from my hand and ran into the crowded car rental office I had just left.

“Wait here!” she exclaimed, right before she shut the door behind her.

We, the people standing outside, heard a scream. We thought somebody was hurt. Then there was a rather long shout. We could not hear the words, but we could feel the rage. A couple of minutes later, our friend emerged, her face red and stretched. She had the keys to a minivan in her hands. She had cast a spell on the clerks at the store. We had our van.

It is unacceptable in today’s competitive environment for a service company to break its promise. But, I find it even more offensive and infuriating the fact that you end up getting what you deserve when you resort to aggressive behavior. A similar situation occurred when we asked for a refund of a flight that was cancelled. It was our right but the company adamantly resisted, complying only when we (incidentally, with the help of the same friend) called them relentlessly for several days and yelled at them periodically.

No one likes a bully customer. But some companies exploit the nice ones by intensifying their bureaucracy. Such a strategy; resistance until the customer gets really really(!) upset, is not optimal in the long run. The feedback is wicked. It suggests that things get done only when you lose your temper and this is not a sustainable way to consume and/or interact.

Here is a reenactment of my friend at the car rental store. Here is the famous Seinfeld approach.

Unhappy ending

Will we be happy right before we die?

What will we say to ourselves, how will we feel about our days, our past, our life as a whole?

Especially in the developed world, conditions improved with respect to just a few decades ago. The life expectancy has increased dramatically. We live healthier for longer.

But what about our final self-evaluation?

It seems that we might not die happy after all. Two possible reasons are the peek-end-rule (interesting post here) and the duration neglect (interesting post here).

Peek-end-rule is about what we remember after a certain experience. It turns out, extreme events and final episodes stay with us the most. Life will possibly bring us both positive and negative extremes, but final moments will probably not consist of the finest ones. Also, recurrent negative health shocks will likely drag our happiness down in our later years.

Duration neglect, on the other hand, is about what we don’t remember and don’t take into account. It turns out, 20 years of happy and healthy life does not give us twice the satisfaction as 10 years of happiness and health. In fact, we pretty much neglect the whole 10 years difference. When we evaluate our experiences, we do not sum up all the happy moments. This tendency suggests that a longer and healthier youth will not affect much our happiness at deathbed.

We tend to discount individual, happy days. We do not include them in our mental accounting. Maybe this is useful, as we tend to do the same for bad days as well. Still, the aging process guarantees that our evaluation will suffer from the weight of many health issues we will face and overcome in our later years.

Perhaps the primitive man, who lived thousands (or hundreds) of years ago, died much younger, but happier.

As for final words, the question we’ll ask ourselves right at the end is likely to be: “What the hell happened to me?”

Illusion of predictability #1

A study I recently conducted with Robin Hogarth has been featured in various blogs, including Harvard Business Review and Reuters.

They also involve some very insightful discussions.

Here they are:

Harvard Business Review – Blog by Justin Fox

Reuters – Blog by Felix Salmon


Simulated experience #2

There are 3 doors.

Behind one of them is a Ferrari of your favorite color.

You do not know which door is the winner.You don’t.

But I do!

I ask you to select a door and you make a choice.

Once you choose a door, I eliminate one of the two that you did not select, while making sure that there is NO Ferrari behind the door I eliminate.


Do you stay with your original choice, or given the option, would you change to the other remaining door?

This is the famous Monty Hall problem. And it confuses a lot of people.

The probabilistic structure, like in the birthday problem, is hard to understand.

Although one might be inclined to think that the odds are 50%-50% at the last stage, it turns out that if you change doors, your chances of getting that Ferrari is 67%, and if you stay, it is only 33%.

There is, of course, an analytic solution to this problem. But why bother? Use simulated experience. Just take 3 playing cards, 2 black and 1 red (Ferrari).

Put them upside down as you make a selection. Then, turn them over, take out a black card out of the ones that you did not select and make a note of the result. You’ll see that when you repeat this procedure over and over again, out of the remaining cards, the red one will mostly be the other card.

Or, play the game HERE.

Options and donations #2

Previous post was about the effect of number of available option on donation amounts.

It turns out that more options give a sensation of more need, which in turn increases the willingness to donate and the donation amounts.

How would one, then,  distribute those contributions when there are multiple options?

This is important, as there is a variety of  NGOs out there competing for our contributions.

In an article published in Judgment and Decision Making, Robin Hogarth and I looked for answers.

We found that the more NGOs we face, the more variable are our contributions. Known NGOs enjoy more the benefit of larger donations due to higher number of options. Unknown NGOs, on the other hand, get less and less as the number of alternatives increases. Competition favors the known organizations.

Interestingly, when we considered campaigns, we observed the opposite. The contributions became more equally distributed across campaigns as the number of options increased from 1 to 13.

Finally, in terms of how NGOs ask for donations in online environments,  results suggest that when organizations make us choose one option among many through some drop-down menus, donations do not increase with the number of options. The positive effect due to increased options disappears.

All the donation sites we reviewed feature some kind of a menu: they offer large number of options, but constrain us to choose one of them as the recipient of our contribution.

This strategy is not optimal!

They should instead let us distribute our donations across their campaigns.

Wicked experience

According to Robin M. Hogarth’s book Educating Intuition, there are two types of experience: Kind and wicked.

The kind version, as the name suggests, is nice. The feedback on your actions is unbiased. A tennis player is endowed with kind experience. She receives immediate and accurate news on what happens when she hits the ball in a certain way.

The wicked version is cunning. It shows you only part of the story and gives feedback on some of the outcomes. An emergency room doctor mostly lives in a wicked environment. He does not receive immediate and accurate feedback on his patients.

Consider another example.

You are walking. You drop a coin on the ground. You stop and look back to locate it. Think about how that coin traveled as it fell. Did it move forward or backward? Or maybe it just fell straight down?

Most people say it traveled straight or backward, although it actually moved forward along a curve. It just fell behind due to gravity pulling it down at the same time.

Because people always locate the coin behind, they tend to assume that its movement could not have been forward. Their experience and subsequent observation confuses their logic. It is wicked.

Consider other wicked environments, such as massively populated online social networks.

Everybody in these virtual spaces is good-looking and socially responsible. Through many connections, one is exposed to a constant stream of interesting news, cool photographs, fun anecdotes. I suspect this kind of biased experience would push someone to be depressed about her/his own life.

Here is an article that suggests this might be the case.

Good gossip

“You know I don’t like him. He talks too much and is very arrogant. The other one is a nerd. When he talks, he makes no sense. Boring. The girl we just saw is weird. She told me that she doesn’t like you because of the thing that happened the other day. Come on man. She is not that smart you know. Oh and she is always talking behind people’s backs.”

“Dude, aren’t we doing that right now?”


This is an addiction. I am sure about that. I bet it raises the level of some obscure hormone in our prefrontal cortex so that we feel intoxicated while gossiping. It is a process that is hard to stop when it starts. And it is often hard not to start.

There are explanations for it in many domains, including evolutionary and group psychology. So be it. Any benefits though? It seems to be a complete waste of time. There is absolutely no creativity involved. No contribution to ideas. No learning. No value. No use. It’s more like a shot of tequila than a proper conversation. And one never stops at one shot.

If there is no way around it, perhaps there is a way to transform the content, make it useful. Instead of talking about the man or the woman, what they might have said or done, we could talk about their ideas. And only ideas! Who knows, that might generate a new set of ideas, which can be the topic of another session between other people.

Addictions are hard to get rid of. Bending them to give them a positive spin is almost impossible. In this case, that might just be possible.

Creative banking

“Hello. I would like to open a second account please.”

“Alright, but please wait there for 10 minutes (…) Now tell me your ID number, birthday, telephone number, address (…) Now sign here, here, here, here, here, here and here (…) I would like to offer you a great deal with our life insurance plan; if you take it now you will have a 20% discount and we will charge you less commission for your operations. If you do not take the plan right now, we will charge you more commission and if you become invalid due to an illness or accident, you will not be able to receive the benefits of our program. You either do it now, or the discount is no more.”

And once again, I have that feeling. Every time I enter the freezing office of a bank, I expect a new experience; totally random and surprisingly creative. Now I am picturing myself ill and injured and miserable. How the hell did we get here?

“No, thanks. Just the account please. But last time I came here, my internet banking account was cancelled by mistake. This time, I will be glad if it stays operational. Could you check now if it works?”

“Yes, it is working. But are you sure about the insurance? Think about it.”

“Well thanks, but I won’t need it at this time. However, I would appreciate if you could confirm that my internet service is active. It is a long way from home, I cannot come back here.”

“Yes. As I said, everything is in order. I will call you again next week and ask you if you want to get the insurance, I will give you some time to think.”

When I got home in the evening, my internet service was down.

It still is.

Virtual bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is inevitable. And the consequence of any kind of bureaucracy is that you have to wait. Hence, waiting is inevitable.

The other day I was waiting, again. I had gone to a public office to collect something. I arrived at 10.59 according to my ticket, which also showed my number: 370. I looked at the counter; it was at 169. The place was packed. Everybody had something in their hands, mostly their cell phones, playing games, tweeting, googling, reading, writing on other people’s virtual walls.

169 people were attended since 9.00. That would make my waiting time more than two hours. After just five minutes, I gave up and went to my office. I worked, ate, killed time.

At around 12.50, I decided to make the 15-minute trip back to the place. It was still very crowded. I hesitantly looked at the counter. The number was 367. After two minutes, I was attended.

There has to be an easier way.

All these people had their smart phones in their hands, constrained to wait there, doing nothing smart. I thought the counter could be online. People could be at their homes or offices, looking at the counter on their smart phones. They could go there before their turn and avoid all the hassle. That would be smart.

This is not very difficult to do. Yet you don’t see it everywhere. Hence perhaps bureaucracy is designed to make you wait.

Hence, waiting is inevitable.

B and U

It is very difficult for me to get the right gift to someone. I am not good at that. Some people are amazingly talented though. They remember something you said a few months ago, relate it to something you might need and locate the perfect gift faster than I locate the t-shirt I want to wear in the morning.

I guess one can be creative about the gift itself or the way it is delivered. Getting someone a hot air balloon ride or organizing a surprise party with unexpected guests are all about the gift. The delivery can be equally interesting.

I witnessed a nice delivery of a gift the other day. In fact, there was only the delivery and no gift. Teachers in a primary school in Spain pay a certain amount of money each month to a fund. At the end of the year, this money, which is actually their own, is spent to buy a three-day holiday abroad. Essentially, teachers are buying the holiday to themselves. However, a committee of two people organizes the whole thing, keeping secret the location of the holiday until the very last moment; the check-in counter!

To make things worse, once they decide on the secret location, the funny organizers provide clues about the destination every other week, giving out random information like “we are going north” or, “the name of the place has the letter ‘e’ in it.”

They knew there was an ‘b’ and a ‘u’ in the name this year. They hoped for Istanbul, they went to Edinburgh.

Interview #1

“Hello Mr. Soyer, it’s nice to meet you! How are you doing?”

“Well, I am alright, thank you, how are you?”

“Good. So let’s start. First, I think that your idea is completely wrong and misleading. Clearly the people you questioned and did experiments on were stupid.”

Wow. We are inside the first minute, still twenty-nine minutes to go in the interview and here we go. There is a lot of randomness involved in interviews, especially in academic ones where you have to defend an original idea. Some people are very kind and give you an easy time, possibly some constructive feedback on your work. Others are very aggressive and want to see how you would survive a surprise attack to your very core.

The trick is to use whatever you are served to your advantage. Take it and bend it and fold it and shape it to suit a narrative that is heavily based on your strengths. It has to be automatic, creative, consistent. It’s hard. I sometimes get it and sometimes don’t. Somebody is borderline insulting the work you have invested hours and days and months in, and you have to use it as an opportunity. It does not come easy.

I do not know any general prescriptions. This whole thing is not personal; it is business (I hate that expression). I do not think it should be so. It is always good to learn about the interviewer’s business/research beforehand. One of my harsh interviewer’s research was, for instance, about the psychology of job interviews and suggested that one should not disagree with the interviewers.

Well, sorry, that time I had to.

Easy empathy

“Is this going to go on like this?” he asked, with no emotion in his voice. I did not respond. It was dark and thus he could not see my eyes shouting “I will beat you up right here right now.”

It was a four-minute video I just had finished shooting with my two artist cousins, right there in the middle of the living room, where he was asking the question from. It was for a song my father had composed for a non-profit project. We shot it in several hours with amateurs’ enthusiasm, using very primitive material, edited it with the best of our capacity and were watching it for the first time. We had to make it in one take and our “actress”, unpredictable as she was, did a great job (I returned her back to the pet store after the shooting. She was possibly scared, but alive and well).

Unfortunately, we had to watch it with him, who had just dropped by to see one of my cousins. Why could he not just shut up for four minutes? Maybe he had a point, but I was in love with my creation. I feel he should have respected that love affair.

It is some kind of an owner’s curse. You see more pros than cons in your creation, whereas other people, including competitors and most of the time friends, do the opposite. It happens when an original idea is shared. I believe people often comment with good intentions but the way they do it makes the whole difference. I remember once a friend of my father’s, upon listening to one of his recordings, said: “Elton John would have played this better.” And well, he was probably right. But seriously, come on!

At that precise moment I recall looking at my father. He had the same look in his eyes as I had when the guy asked how long our video would go on like that.

A little empathy goes a long way.

Here is that video we shot to the song “in the morning of a day.”

Who is the killer?

I look at my card. It’s red. So, who is the killer?

I am in a train, together with three friends. We have tried playing several card games. This game beats them all. It is mind-boggling.

It is not even a card game. It’s simpler than that. You need only four cards: three reds and one black. Everybody gets one card at random. The owner of the black card is the killer.

Then you start talking with each other. The job is to find the killer, just by talking, discussing. Once three people agree that a fourth is the killer, the cards are opened, the scores are delivered; alea iacta est. Until then, you just talk and think and form conjectures.

Does this game have a solution? I doubt it. You get to know the other players first. How do they behave? What do they say? With each new game, you hope to improve your ability to predict.

The interesting thing is that, after some playing time, you start perceiving subtle changes in behavior and communication. You base your theories on them. However, the more you convince yourself of the validity of your theory, the more difficult becomes the task of convincing others. The better you express your opinions, the more the other players think that you are the killer, as you are trying to divert them to another target.

There is no easy fix. You just have to be patient, observant and cautious about what you communicate to others. The trick sometimes is to be even more cautious about what you communicate to yourself.

I look at my card. It’s red. Or is it?


He was resting in his bed and smiling when I entered his room. When he saw that I brought a hammer with me he started laughing, surprised. “I have come to finish what you have started” I said. The reason why he was resting at home with a huge bandage wrapped around his head was that he almost cracked open his skull the day before by hitting it against something much harder. Now he owned a dozen stitches.

I decided to visit him with a hammer after I learned that this wound was voluntarily self-inflicted. I am sure he did not plan to permanently reshape his head; nevertheless he could not stop himself from banging his head against a concrete wall. In fact he was angry, disappointed, sad and temporarily insane. His favorite team had lost the day before to their archrivals. He was devastated. The final whistle took away all the hope, and in that blindness he knocked himself out.

My friend had a good education, loving parents, a lot of friends and a good job. To the best of my knowledge he did not have a psychological disorder or violent inclinations. But he was a fanatic fan. Without any apparent reason, he was part of a team, a group of individuals who supported adamantly a member of a sports community. His metabolism had decided to correlate its functions with the performance of a bunch of athletes wearing certain colors competing with other athletes wearing other colors.

There are news reports everyday about fanatic activities based on religion or nationalism. Wars are fought for those causes. But sports? Given that I do not support his team, I genuinely believe that he would hit me with his head if we were watching the game together. Maybe regardless of its basis, this kind of reaction and extreme behavior is a symptom of a generic socio/psychological need. Here is the excerpt of a report on the issue written by two Turkish researchers for Athens 2004 Pre-Olympics Conference.

For some reason, my friend needed his team to win that day and he needed that like there is no tomorrow. Almost, there was no tomorrow.